It’s been over a year now and we’ve all gotten used to keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer on us at all times. We use it after touching any shared surface, but is it really a viable replacement for hand washing? Are we only using it because there isn’t enough access to point-of-contact hand washing?
Purell’s hand sanitizer sales rose 600% in 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal–which makes complete sense. So obviously there are circumstances that require its use, but how often are we misusing it simply out of convenience.
So, which is it?
Let’s turn to the trusted source, the CDC, and see what they say. Basically, hot water and soap are more effective, which we as a society already knew. According to the CDC, “soap and water help to dislodge germs that adhere to the skin surface and reduce the number of microorganisms on hands.” Therefore, hand sanitizers should only be used when hand washing is not possible or after hand washing as an extra precautionary measure.
Basically, sanitizers are not a replacement for hot water hand washing. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are shown to be less effective against viruses in particular, like COVID-19, due to the microbial construction of the virus itself. The sanitizer cannot penetrate the protein casing on the outside of the virus as effectively as the old faithful hand washing techniques.
The use of hand sanitizer also depends on the substance you’re looking to remove. If your hands are not dry, whether that’s due to a food substance or other contaminant, the sanitizer will be far less effective. Hand washing is the only way to go in that situation because the sanitizer won’t penetrate through the substance and disinfect your hands as you would expect it to. However, 60-95% alcohol-based hand sanitizers can lend a helping hand (pun intended) when hand washing capabilities aren’t available.
If the need arises
If the occasion arises for using sanitizer, the right amount needs to be applied (around a teaspoon), it needs to reach all parts of your hands, and it needs to completely dry. It has become such a quick fix that it’s inevitable that some of us are relying on it too much and not following the proper steps when using it.
One study even found that 30 seconds of sanitizer application was the ideal amount of time for germ reduction and drying. The recommended 30 seconds for sanitizer application is actually longer than the recommended 20 seconds for hand washing. So, is it really easier or is it a matter of access?
For example, in healthcare settings, research has shown that allowing for a substitute of hand sanitizer over hand washing increased rates of actual hand washing. Now, this may be because clinical professionals realize it takes just as much time to wash their hands, or maybe just seeing the sanitizer readily available reminds them to consistently wash up. Either way, even if sanitizer isn’t as effective, it’s reminding us of hand hygiene and will hopefully lead to more hand washing even outside of these clinical settings.
Access, access, and more access
The immediate relief felt when using hand sanitizer really does come down to a lack of access to hand washing stations. This may not be the case as you’re leaving the supermarket and snag a quick bit of sanitizer, but it is true in childcare facilities, schools, healthcare settings, food service, and retail.
Companies like Ozark River Manufacturing are solving this problem around readily available, point-of-contact hand washing. Their over 65 portable sink models fit easily into any environment and give workers and the general public the option. It seems to be the case that when given this choice of sanitizer versus hand washing–alongside the proper information about time and effectiveness–the public would more than likely choose the more effective, quicker route—hand washing.