Washing Your Hands vs. Hand Sanitizer: The Differences You Should Know

With the world in an uproar over collecting the last bottle of hand sanitizer, it can be easy to be swept away by the 99.99% germ annihliation claims. But what actually is the difference between hand sanitizer and hand washing? And is one better than the other? Contrary to some popular belief, hand sanitizer and hand washing are not one in the same. Each method battles germs and dirt very differently, leading to a different type of clean altogether.

So, let’s meet our sanitation participants, and learn a little more about them, and what they’re good for.

Hand Washing: The Separator

How about we paint a picture? Let’s compare the process of washing your hands to peeling off the plastic screen-protector on a cell phone. Aaaah, so satisfying. So-long dirty plastic film and hello shiny clean screen! Washing your hands has a very similar “separation” process.  

When you wash your hands with soap and water, the dirt and germs on your skin become trapped in the suds that form. They are then lifted from the skin, suspended in the water, and neatly flushed down the drain – leaving behind sparkling paws!

The downside? Washing your hands does not guarantee you will kill the actual bacteria on your skin. Rather, it detaches the specimens and relocates them. This is perfectly fine for most scenarios but is an important differentiation to make when considering environments that rely on completely sterile conditions.

The other downside is that most people don’t wash their hands properly. Be honest. When is the last time you scrubbed your hands for 2 minutes straight, cleaning between your knuckles, wrists, palms, back of hand, and finger nails? Yeah… not too often.

Overall, hand washing is great at removing harmful chemicals, heavy metals, soot, cooking residue, and much more. It is a very dependable method for cleaning your skin, but simply can’t guarantee 100% destruction of all germs.

Hand Sanitizer: The Assassin

Hand sanitizer on the other hand, which is made up of alcohol and sterilizers, can kill bacteria, fungi, and some viruses. It does this by softening their bacterial membrane and then striking those germs where it hurts.

Although hand sanitizer is qualified for stealthy bacterial assassinations, it is not a perfect protector. It cannot kill certain viruses including: norovirus, parasites, and Clostridium difficile (which is known to lead to disaster pants).  It also does not do any of the separation work that hand washing does, meaning that if you have dirt or grime on your hands, that will stay put.

If you’re looking for a fast way to destroy bacteria and fungi, hand sanitizer is your guy. Again, though, it will not remove these offenders. The best option is to use it as a second line of defense after washing your hands to ensure parasite eradication.

So When Should I Use Each? 

You want our advice? Two is better than one when it comes to your health. By washing your hands and then sanitizing them, you can ensure that all germs are both separated and destroyed. 

With that in mind, we understand that you are human (hopefully), and won’t always have a sink accessible in all situations. So, here is a handy breakdown of the best scenarios for each:

Washing Your Hands: 

  • Before, during, and after walking around in public

  • Before, during and after meal prepping before eating food

  • After using the bathroom or changing diapers

  • After blowing your nose or sneezing

  • After touching animals

  • After touching or handling garbage

Hand Sanitizers:  

  • After you wash your hands

  • Before and after exposure to healthcare settings

  • If you’re exposed to germs or pathogens, such as interacting with someone who is sick

  • Custodial managers should offer both soaps and sanitizers in their facilities – they can serve as a great backup to remove germs in the absence of water

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