Soap vs. Sanitizer: Is There a Hands-Down Winner for Getting Clean?

Soap vs. Sanitizer: Is There a Hands-Down Winner for Getting Clean?

Germs. They’re everywhere you don’t want them to be. You can’t see them, but they’re waiting.

Germs are lurking on the handrail of every stairway you use. The same handrail a woman gripped right after coughing into her hand. Now her germs are doing a happy dance on your skin.

Invisible germs are slathered all over the touchscreens you tap at the grocery store and your favorite coffee shop. They wait to hitch a ride every time you grab the gas nozzle to fill up your car or truck.

These colonies of germs peak from December through May. Think of it as the trouble-making prime of their lives. The time they most easily spread from person to person every time someone coughs, sneezes or simply talks. Droplets from an infected person float through the air and are inhaled by others.

They can also land on anyone or anything within three feet. Germs can live for HOURS on surfaces like doorknobs, desks and tables. If someone touches their eyes, nose or mouth after coming in contact with a contaminated surface, they may become ill.

Good News for Germaphobes

There’s an easy way to protect yourself. Washing your hands often is one of the best ways to avoid getting and spreading a cold or flu.

Sure, it's impossible to keep your hands germ-free all the time, but frequent hand washing limits the transfer of bacteria and viruses. You only need soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

You may we wondering: Is one better than the other? Let’s compare the two.

Infographic appears courtesy of National Jewish Health

Soap and Water

The idea that hand washing could slow the spread of germs in hospitals didn’t “germinate” until about 1846.  A doctor connected the dots when he linked the spread of germs to women dying of “childbed fever.” Despite the evidence, the idea didn’t take off right away. Hand-washing guidelines weren’t put in place until the 1980’s.

What’s the best way to wash your hands? Here’s a simple how-to:

  1. Wet your hands with warm or cold running water.
  2. Apply liquid, bar or powder soap to lather up. Rub your hands briskly for at least 20 seconds. Hint: A common way to get the time right is to sing the “ABCs” song while you wash your hands.
  3. Scrub all surfaces of your hands and wrists. Give attention to the backs of your hands and wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails.
  4. Rinse well and dry your hands with a clean cloth or disposable towel. An air dryer offers a no-touch option. Hint: Use a towel or your elbow to turn off the faucet when you can.
Hand Sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is a portable way to get the germs off your hands when soap and water aren’t available. Not all hand sanitizers are the same, though. Choose one that is at least 60 percent alcohol.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can kill bacteria and some viruses. They do not work against norovirus, a common virus that can cause serious illness.

While alcohol-based hand sanitizers are considered a safe and effective alternative when you can’t wash, old-fashioned soap and water is your best choice for really getting clean.

When Should You Wash?

There are some good rules of thumb to follow when it comes to wiping out those nasty, illness-causing germs on your hands.

Lather up to help protect your health before:

  • Cooking and eating
  • Inserting and removing contact lenses
  • Treating wounds, giving medicine, and caring for sick or injured people

Lather up to help protect your health after:

  • Using the bathroom or changing a diaper
  • Touching an animal or animal toys, leashes or waste
  • Handling garbage or household or garden chemicals
  • Blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing into your hands

Feeling icky? Start scrubbing.

Sources: When and How to Wash Your Hands, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.

Originally published 12/21/2015; Revised 2022