Does Hand Sanitizer Replace Soap & Water?


Hand Sanitizer vs. Soap and WaterWhile hand sanitizers can reduce the amount of germs on our skin, they aren’t perfect. If you’ve been relying on these products as the exclusive means for keeping your hands clean, learn why you may be leaving yourself susceptible to illness.

How Effective Are They?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be a useful resource when a sink and soap are nowhere to be found. That said, while they are able to quickly reduce the number of microbes on the hands in many instances, sanitizers cannot kill every type of germ. This includes certain types of hearty viruses, such as norovirus, which causes viral gastroenteritis, also known as the stomach flu.

Sanitizers are also unable to effectively sterilize hands when dirt or other particles are present. This is one reason why they aren’t a good option during food preparation, when water, food, blood and fatty materials are more likely to present on a person’s hands. Hand sanitizers are also unable to remove harmful chemicals, such as heavy metals and pesticides, from hands.

Handwashing Works Better

When performed with patience and good technique, handwashing is the best way to eliminate germs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, proper handwashing technique should include the following five-step process:

1. Wet your hands with running water; shut off the tap and apply soap.
2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together, paying special attention to the backs of the hands, the areas between fingers and beneath fingernails.
3. Scrub your hands for no less than 20 seconds.
4. Rinse your hands beneath running water.
5. Allow your hands to dry in the air or use a clean towel.

You should also be careful not to contaminate your hands by touching tainted objects when leaving public restrooms.

When to Use Sanitizers

If you don’t have access to soap or a sink, you can use hand sanitizers to kill as many germs as possible. Just make sure you choose a sanitizer that has at least a 60-percent alcohol content. Use should also avoid using hand sanitizer if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. For more information on handwashing and hand sanitizer use, consult this helpful guide from the CDC.

Dr. Jeannie Kenkare

Written by Dr. Jeannie Kenkare

Dr. Kenkare is a highly experienced clinician with a background in family medicine. As a founding member of PhysicianOne Urgent Care's parent company Happy Mountains, she is also our Chief Medical Officer. Dr. Kenkare provides guidance and leadership to our health care team, and is responsible for the review of clinical guidelines, decision tools, and outcomes to develop and implement strategies that will improve patient care and clinical quality.