How Effective Are Hand Sanitizer Gels?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • In a previous post, “Should You Use Antibacterial Soaps?” we talked about the lack of evidence that antibacterial soaps help you stay healthy and how some research has shown they can actually harm you.  Research has shown that plain soap and water works just as well. Is it the same for hand sanitizers? Should you stay away from them as well or can they help?


    Based on the research, experts all seem to agree that washing your hands with soap and water is best. It kills germs and washes away any dirt and grime. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention you should wash your hands:

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    • Before and after preparing foods and before eating food
    • Before and after caring for someone who is sick or treating a cut or wound
    • After using the toilet, changing a diaper or cleaning up after a child who has used the toilet
    • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
    • After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste
    • After touching garbage

    But, what if you aren’t around soap and water? What if you sneeze in the middle of the mall, in your car or while taking a walk? In these cases, hand sanitizer can help.  There is, however, a right way to use hand sanitizer:

    • Make sure the product you are using is at least 60 percent alcohol
    • Put the product in your palm  - the amount may vary based on the brand, read the directions for the proper amount
    • Rub your hands together vigorously
    • Rub the product all over your hands and fingers and continue until your hands feel dry

    One of the concerns about antibacterial soaps and cleansers is that overuse can cause germs to be resistant to antibiotics. This isn’t true with hand sanitizers, if they are at least 60 percent alcohol. Those with less than 60 percent alcohol and those that are non-alcohol based do not work on all classes of germs and can cause germs to become antibiotic resistant. Be sure to read the label before buying a hand sanitizer.


    Another problem with antibacterial soaps is, to be effective they should remain on your hands for two minutes. People will rarely wait for two minutes before rinsing off the soap. If you use hand sanitizers when you aren’t around water and rub until your hands feel dry, this isn’t an issue. The hand sanitizer remains on your hands.


    While hand sanitizers can be useful in killing germs, they are not meant to wash off dirt, oil, sweat or grime. They seem to work well in healthcare settings, where hands don’t necessarily get “dirty” but are exposed to germs. In these cases, hand sanitizers make sense. However, if you are handling food, playing sports or working outdoors where your hands are visibly dirty, a hand sanitizer isn’t going to do much good. In these cases, you need to wash your hands with soap and water.


    Remember, many seasonal illnesses come from viruses, not bacteria.  While hand sanitizers can help reduce the spread of germs and stop the spread of some viruses, they don’t kill every germ.


    The bottom line is that hand sanitizers should not be used as a substitute for hand washing. While helpful when there is no soap and water around, they should be seen as a supplement or in addition to regular hand washing. 


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    “Show Me the Science-When to Use Hand Sanitizer,” Updated 2013, Dec 11, Staff Writers, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


    “Wash Your Hands,” Updated 2013, Dec 11, Staff Writer, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Published On: September 01, 2014