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Hand Sanitizer or Hand Washing: Which is better?

Have you ever been in a public bathroom with your child and watched them touch the floor or the toilet? It is amazing how they find the grossest things to touch. It is always tricky holding them up to the sink, applying soap, lathering up their little hands, rinsing them off, drying them off, and getting them out the door before they touch something else. It’s an even bigger challenge if you have two kids under three-years-old.

Add on the fear of COVID, and the bathroom or any public space becomes a very scary place. One answer to this could be using hand sanitizer instead of soap and water. Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of the two options.

A Look into Hand Sanitizer

To be effective, hand sanitizer needs to have at least 60% alcohol in it. It kills certain germs on your hands but does not clean off every germ (specifically germs that cause diarrheal illness like norovirus and C. diff) and does not remove chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals. When you are using hand sanitizer, you should rub it all over your hands until they are dry (about 20 seconds). Do not rinse or wipe off your hands until they are dry because it may not work as well to kill the germs. Do not use hand sanitizer if your hands are visibly dirty. Supervise your child while they are applying it, because hand sanitizer can be both painful and toxic to the eyes.

The Inside Scoop on Hand Washing

Hand washing removes or reduces all types of germs, chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals. Wet your hands, apply soap, lather for 20 seconds (or as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song), rinse your hands with running water and dry with paper towels or air dryer. Soap and water should be used before preparing food, before eating, after changing diapers or helping a child use the bathroom, and before and after taking care of someone with diarrhea. Surprisingly, the soap does not have to have antibacterial properties because they end up killing the good bacteria on our hands as well as the bad.

Is hand sanitizer or hand washing better?

When thinking through these two options, it seems that soap and water are preferable. The bottom line is this truth — even though hand washing is better, hand sanitizer is better than nothing.  Choose hand sanitizer that is approved by the FDA. Importantly, make sure you are supervising your child when they use it. Help your child lather it all over their hands and then have them shake his/her hands to speed up drying. This will reduce the chance of them getting it in their eyes.

Jessica Ford at Primary Pediatrics

Dr. Jessica Ford headshot photo