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Is Hand Sanitizer as Effective as Washing Your Hands?

It may not be as powerful as you think

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When you enter a hospital, an airport, a grocery store or many other public places, there’s oftentimes a hand sanitizer dispenser waiting for you. The world is filled with different kinds of germs, but it’s not possible to walk around with clean water and antibacterial soap everywhere you go. If you use hand sanitizer, do you still need to wash your hands? Is using sanitizer as effective as soap and water?

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hand sanitizer is a great method for reducing some bacteria, such as E. coli, from your hands when soap and water aren’t available. However, it should not replace washing your hands because, while it can reduce the number of microbes on your hands, it does not eliminate it entirely. Washing your hands with soap and water actually carries the bacteria away from the surface of your hands. Washing your hands with water alone can remove some of the germs, but using antibacterial soap will increase the effectiveness because the soap pulls the bacteria off to be swept away by the water. 

The agency recommends using hand sanitizer only as a last resort by using a large amount, getting to places like fingernails and between fingers, and letting it dry on your hands completely to stop bacterial growth. Sanitizers should contain at least 60% alcohol to be effective in killing germs. By using a hand sanitizer with less than 60% alcohol, you risk the chance of only slowing the growth of the bacteria.

However, there are some situations where sanitizer may not be efficient at all, like if your hands get dirty from gardening or cooking in the kitchen with raw meat. In those cases, the recommended method would be to wash your hands with soap and warm water. Even though sanitizer may kill some germs in some situations, it won’t remove the grime or grease from your hands. Hand sanitizer is also not a great method for removing chemicals, such as pesticides, from your hands. The protein and fats in foods can reduce alcohol’s germ-killing effect.

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Is hand sanitizer convenient? Yeah, and it will make do in a pinch. But nothing compares to good ol’ soap and water when it comes to cleaning your hands — especially after touching the dirtiest places in your home.