Do Hand Sanitizers Work Better Than Soap and Water?

Hand sanitizers should not take the place of plain soap and water

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Antibacterial hand sanitizers are marketed to the public as an effective way to wash one's hands when traditional soap and water are not available. These "waterless" products are particularly popular with parents of small children. Manufacturers of hand sanitizers claim that the sanitizers kill 99.9 percent of germs. Since you naturally use hand sanitizers to cleanse your hands, the assumption is that 99.9 percent of harmful germs are killed by the sanitizers. However, research studies suggest that this is not the case.

How Do Hand Sanitizers Work?

Hand sanitizers work by stripping away the outer layer of oil on the skin. This usually prevents bacteria present in the body from coming to the surface of the hand. However, these bacteria that are normally present in the body are generally not the kinds of bacteria that will make us sick. In a review of the research, Barbara Almanza, an associate professor at Purdue University who teaches safe sanitation practices to workers, came to an interesting conclusion. She notes that the research shows that hand sanitizers do not significantly reduce the number of bacteria on the hand and in some cases may potentially increase the number of bacteria. So the question arises, how can the manufacturers make the 99.9 percent claim?

How Can Manufacturers Make the 99.9 Percent Claim?

The manufacturers of the products test the products on bacteria-tainted inanimate surfaces, hence they are able to derive the claims of 99.9 percent of bacteria killed. If the products were fully tested on hands, there would no doubt be different results. Since there is inherent complexity in the human hand, testing hands would definitely be more difficult. Using surfaces with controlled variables is an easier way to obtain some type of consistency in the results. But, as we are all aware, everyday life is not as consistent.

Hand Sanitizer vs. Hand Soap and Water

Interestingly enough, the Food and Drug Administration, in regards to regulations concerning proper procedures for food services, recommends that hand sanitizers not be used in place of hand soap and water but only as an adjunct. Likewise, Almanza recommends that to properly sanitize the hands, soap and water should be used during hand washing. A hand sanitizer can not and should not take the place of proper cleansing procedures with soap and water.

Hand sanitizers can be a useful alternative when the option of using soap and water is not available. An alcohol-based sanitizer that contains at least 70% alcohol should be used to ensure that germs are killed. Since hand sanitizers don't remove dirt and oils on hands, it is best to wipe your hands with a towel or napkin before applying the sanitizer.

What About Antibacterial Soaps?

Research on the use of consumer antibacterial soaps has shown that plain soaps are just as effective as antibacterial soaps in reducing bacteria-related illnesses. In fact, using consumer antibacterial soap products may increase bacterial resistance to antibiotics in some bacteria. These conclusions only apply to consumer antibacterial soaps and not to those used in hospitals or other clinical areas. Other studies suggest that ultra-clean environments and the persistent use of antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers may inhibit proper immune system development in children. This is because inflammatory systems require greater exposure to common germs for proper development.

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the marketing of over-the-counter antibacterial products that contain several ingredients including triclosan and triclocarban. Triclosan in antibacterial soaps and other products has been linked to the development of certain diseases.


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Your Citation
Bailey, Regina. "Do Hand Sanitizers Work Better Than Soap and Water?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Bailey, Regina. (2021, July 29). Do Hand Sanitizers Work Better Than Soap and Water? Retrieved from Bailey, Regina. "Do Hand Sanitizers Work Better Than Soap and Water?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).