Why Hand Washing is Preferable to Hand Sanitizing Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In this post, Xiaoyan Song,PhD, MSc,  Director of Infection Control  with Children’s National Health System, discusses the difference between hand washing and using hand sanitizer.

Parents often give their child hand sanitizer because it is convenient and quick and many believe labels that say “kills 99.9 percent of germs” as fact, but hand sanitizer is not the best option for fighting infection.

Is hand sanitizer really better for you than traditional soap and water?

The simple answer is not always. Although many claim to kill almost all germs, there are certain germs that are not killed by hand sanitizers. When hands look clean, it is generally appropriate to use hand sanitizers. The exceptions include, but are not limited to, after taking care of someone who becomes sick from a germ called clostridium difficile or norovirus.  In this type of situation, washing with soap and water is better because sanitizer cannot kill these “smart” germs.  

Does it matter how long my child washes his or her hands?

Hand washing may not always be effective because many people, especially children, do not use the proper technique. Rushing through the process means hands will not be cleaned as well, leaving many germs behind. I recommend washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water and making sure you clean your entire hand and under your nails. It also is necessary to find a sink that is properly equipped with soap and paper towels.  

What if there is no soap, or even, water around?

Hand sanitizer is better than not washing your hands at all. In situations where water is not available, hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative. It is recommended that if you use hand sanitizer, it should have at least 60 percent alcohol content in order for it to kill most germs. In a pinch, hand sanitizer can be extremely helpful, especially with small children. However, a common side effect of using too much hand sanitizer is dryness of the skin.

Can I use hand sanitizer to clean dirt off my child’s hands after playing on the playground?

Hand sanitizer is not useful when hands are dirty or greasy. If hands are visibly soiled with dirt or other materials, or you can feel grease on hands, washing with soap and water is more effective and appropriate than sanitizing. The hand sanitizer may seem like it makes your hands clean, but does not actually kill the germs.

What are some tips you can offer to parents on how to help their kids wash their hands effectively and keep them clean?

Wash your hands together. Kids are quick learners. As doctors, we like parents to set good examples for them. Overall, hand sanitizer is a sufficient alternative for hand washing but only when soap and water is not available. It can be especially helpful for young children, but it should only be used when necessary. 



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