Cleaning your hands regularly remains one of the simplest and most-effective defenses against illnesses including COVID-19, the respiratory infection caused by the novel coronavirus.
But when it comes to getting rid of germs, is washing with soap and water always the best choice? Are there situations in which it’s better to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer? And, are there hand sanitizers to avoid?
We spoke with Chavaun LeBlanc, a manager in MD Anderson’s Environmental Health and Safety department. Here’s what she had to say.
What’s the difference between washing your hands and using a hand-sanitizing gel, in terms of cleanliness?
Both actions will make your hands cleaner, just in different ways. One method physically removes germs from the surface your skin and the other kills any germs that might be living there on contact.
Unless you’re using an anti-bacterial soap, washing your hands with soap and water probably won’t kill many germs. But that’s not really the purpose. The goal of lathering up and scrubbing is not to kill germs, but to wash them away. The combination of suds and friction makes it easier to detach germs and dirt from your skin and rinse them down the drain.
Hand sanitizer is designed to kill any germs it comes into contact with. So, the germs are still on you. They’ve just hopefully been neutralized.
Is one hand hygiene method better than the other?
To me, washing your hands with soap and water will always be the gold standard, because it’s better to have no germs on your hands than possibly dead germs on your hands.
When you wash your hands properly, you are literally removing the germs from your skin. They simply are not there anymore, so they cannot hurt you.
But when you use a hand sanitizer, you’re not removing anything. So, if you don’t apply it thoroughly or wait to wipe off the excess, there’s always a risk that you might miss some germs, and those could be the ones that make you sick.
What is the proper way to use hand sanitizer?
Apply the gel generously, and rub it all over your hands. Let it air dry for at least 20 seconds. And don’t wipe off any excess right away, as it takes about that long for the hand sanitizer to work.
Are there any hand sanitizers that people should avoid?
Yes. The Food and Drug Administration is investigating a number of companies for selling hand sanitizers containing methanol and 1-propanol. Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is a known toxin that can cause permanent blindness when absorbed through the skin and be lethal to humans when ingested. Propanol is also a toxin, and can be deadly if ingested.
You should also avoid any hand sanitizers that claim to be “FDA approved” for killing the coronavirus, as these claims are false. No hand sanitizer has been approved by the FDA for that purpose.
Under what circumstances should people use hand sanitizer?
Generally, I would say anytime you’d like to have cleaner hands, but don’t have access to soap and water. This could be after you’ve been out touching things in public, like door handles, elevator buttons or gas pumps, or after you’ve been petting a cat or dog.
Hand sanitizer is better than nothing, but do your best to wash with soap and water every time you’ve used the restroom, sneezed, coughed, or blown your nose. You should also wash with soap and water before you eat or prepare food for anyone else. And remember to lather up your hands completely — front and back — to wash around your nailbeds and under your fingernails, and to scrub for at least 20 seconds, or as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday to You” twice or the ABC song once.