Hand Sanitizer vs. Washing Your Hands

by Naomi Bang ‘23

Along with mask-wearing and social distancing, hand sanitizer has become a hot commodity during the coronavirus pandemic. Since hand sanitizer is now part of our daily routines, it’s important to know what is fundamentally happening when you clean your hands and the best method to do so.

Since before preschool, children are taught that washing hands is essential to prevent germs and sickness. This is no hoax. Though a seemingly simple task, rubbing your hands with soap and water reduces bacteria and viruses to prevent infection and sickness. Soap contains a molecule that separates the grime and microbes from your skin. Thoroughly rubbing your hands also aids this process. Rinsing with running water then washes away those microbes. 

Despite marketing ploys, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that  “antibacterial” soaps are no more effective in reducing bacteria than regular hand soaps. The important part is to thoroughly scrub all surfaces of your hand for an optimal duration of about 20 seconds, or the length of singing “Happy Birthday” twice.

Hand sanitizer operates differently. Rather than rubbing off bacteria, it relies on its alcohol content to kill the germs. In light of this, hand sanitizer does not remove as many pathogens as washing hands. A sanitizer must have at least 60-percent alcohol to be effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers or ones containing a low concentration can’t kill bacteria and viruses but may reduce their spread. As with washing hands, it’s important to rub the hand sanitizer on every surface of your hand and not wipe off the excess before it dries.

“Superbugs” are a strain of pathogens resistant to their treatments. However, the theory of creating superbugs by using too much hand sanitizer has since been disproven. Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics overtime but not alcohol which is the main ingredient in effective hand sanitizers. Bacteria simply can’t build up resistance to alcohol because it works by breaking down the cell’s membrane and the inner components. This myth is not a cause for worry, and there are no other proven side effects to using hand sanitizer.

In a pinch, hand sanitizer is effective in killing most of the bacteria on human hands if used properly. Nevertheless, the best method to kill pathogens is by washing your hands with soap and running water for 20 seconds or more.