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Hand-Washing vs. Hand Sanitizer: Which Is Best for Staying Healthy?
Pongsak Tawansaeng/EyeEm/Getty Images

If eyes are the windows to the soul, then hands are the portals to all the germs, viruses and bugs known to humankind. Think about it: Every surface (both outside and inside the house) has been touched over and over again by a number of other hands. Ew. So, to give ourselves a fighting chance against the coronavirus—and the flu, the common cold, strep throat and stomach bugs—we have to keep our hands clean. But when it comes down to the battle of hand-washing versus hand sanitizer, which is more effective? We asked a couple of doctors and combed through CDC data for some answers.

Which wins in the battle between hand-washing and hand sanitizer?

There’s a reason everyone from your coworkers via Zoom to your mom on a landline is reminding you to wash your hands: It’s the clear winner. Why? Because while hand sanitizer may kill or deactivate some germs, it’s never going to eliminate them in the way washing with soap and water will. A proper washing is, after all, the CDC’s number one recommendation for keeping your hands clean. That’s because when you lather up properly (we’ll get to that soon), you’re rubbing your hands together and creating enough friction with thick, foamy soap to break apart those teeny microorganisms that make you sick—something a quick coating of hand sanitizer just can’t guarantee.

As Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, puts it, “Hand sanitizers are effective and better than not doing anything at all, but the actual rubbing from hand-washing is what breaks down viruses and bacteria. The soap and water wash them off your hands and get them down the drain.”

The CDC also notes that if there’s visible dirt or a coating on your hands from grease, the sanitizer isn’t going to be able to do much cleaning. When you’re doing almost any kind of activity, especially “after handling food, playing sports, working in the garden, or going camping or fishing,” hand sanitizer isn’t going to be able to cut through to the skin. This will leave you with a false sense of security that your hands are germ-free when they’re absolutely not.

Why is hand-washing so important?

Washing your hands not only ensures that you won’t pick up anyone else’s germs but it keeps other people safe too. We know that the coronavirus is especially viral, meaning it spreads from person to person alarmingly fast. We also know that not everyone who has it is going to show symptoms. That means you might pick up the virus, carry it around and unknowingly give it to someone else by sneezing into your hand and then transferring your saliva to a door handle that another person touches just minutes later. 

“Germs can get onto hands if people touch any object that has germs on it or if it was touched by some other contaminated object. When these germs get onto hands and are not washed off, they can be passed from person to person and make people sick,” the CDC says.

How do I wash my hands the right way?

It seems like a simple enough equation: Soap + water = clean hands. But, like most things in life, it’s all about the method. And if you’re stressing over not being able to find antibacterial hand soap, don’t! The CDC says that there is no scientific evidence behind the argument that the type of soap you use matters—they’re all effective at killing germs and washing them off.

1. Turn on the tap (water temperature doesn’t matter) to get the water flowing. The CDC says that it’s best to wash your hands under clean, flowing water instead of in a basin or bowl since germs can breed and survive in water that isn’t moving.

2. Use enough soap to work up a lather and scrub your hands together. Be sure to wash your thumbs, between all of your fingers, under each nail and on the backs of your hands. This video shows a great technique for effectively reaching every surface of your hands.

3. Continue to rub your hands together and scrub all the nooks and crannies for at least 20 seconds. To know you’ve washed long enough, the CDC recommends humming the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself two times through.

4. Rinse your hands well of all the soap and turn off the water. The CDC says no studies show you can recontaminate your hands by using them to turn off the water once you’re through, so save a tree and leave the paper towels for the drying step.

5. Dry your hands with a clean paper towel or let them air-dry, per the CDC’s recommendation.

Using hand sanitizer in a pinch

Now that we know for sure that hand-washing is the gold standard of doctors and the CDC alike, we’re going to be realistic and acknowledge that this isn’t always possible. When you’re out at the grocery store, for example, touching cans and jars that others have handled and exchanging cash with the checkout person, you might be worried about the trillions of germs you could have come in contact with. When you’re nowhere near a sink, hand sanitizer is totally an option—until you get home.

“The good news with the coronavirus is that hand sanitizer does work, unlike with some other viruses out there,” says neonatologist Snehal Doshi, M.D., CEO of Millennium Neonatology. “I still think that hand-washing is the absolute best way to keep the virus from spreading, along with social distancing,” says Dr. Doshi, but he agrees that when you’re out and about, sanitizer is definitely worth using. Here’s how to do it correctly:

1. Squirt a quarter-sized dollop of sanitizer into your hand—enough to cover both of your hands and all fingers.

2. Rub your hands together and spread the gel all over both palms, the backs of your hands, on and around all fingers and under your nails.

3. Keep rubbing the sanitizer in until your skin is dry. Wiping off sanitizer when it’s still wet means you’re basically rubbing off the alcohol that’s doing all the important germ-killing.

On top of knowing the best way to sanitize your hands and that nothing compares to washing with soap and water, all of our experts agree that people need to continue to use their best judgment and common sense. That means staying away from sick people, quarantining if a doctor tells you to, social distancing until we get the all-clear, sneezing and coughing into the crook of our arms and keeping our hands off our faces.

It’s a lot, we know, and it can feel stressful and overwhelming at times. But knowing we’re keeping ourselves, our friends and our families safe with just a few extra steps definitely helps. So keep washing your hands and stay healthy out there!

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