Which is better: Hand sanitizer or soap and water?

Which is better: Hand sanitizer or soap and water? Share this article

When you work in a restaurant, you realize the importance of having clean hands. Whether you're handling raw food, serving prepared meals, touching customers' glasses at the bar or even dealing with cash at a register, you may be aware of the number of things you touch daily and how easy cross-contamination could be without proper hand cleaning. 

As hand sanitizer came onto the market recently, there was a shift in thinking for many people who work in restaurants, hospitals and other places were sanitation is critical to adopt this alcohol gel as a replacement for soap. Others disagreed and stuck with good old-fashioned warm water and soap. But which hand cleaning technique is best? Is there really a difference at all?

Check out how each of these hand cleaning techniques work and why one is superior to the other. 

Soap and water 
There are three ingredients for traditional hand washing: soap, water and friction. As the Minnesota Department of Health explained, the chemical components of soap help dirt, grease and other particulates separate from the hand's skin. Friction furthers this by helping pull contaminants off of the skin. This filth is suspended in the soapy mixture and the running water washes it away down the drain. Repeated friction, lathering and soap washing can help get rid of even more germs, which is why you're supposed to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. 

The effectiveness of traditional hand washing is directly tied to the technique used for hand washing. It isn't a reliable technique when people don't spend enough time, scrub thoroughly or dry on a clean towel. The Mayo Clinic reminded people to wash the backs of their hands, their wrists, nails and between fingers too. 

Although antibacterial soap seems like it would help you get the cleanest, it actually makes very little difference. In fact, antibacterial soap can create stronger, more resistant bacteria compared to regular soap. 

Hand sanitizer 
Hand sanitizers are usually between 60 and 95 percent isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol can be applied quicker than hand washing and kills cells immediately. It doesn't kill human cells, but it's been found particularly effective against a variety of viruses, germs and bacteria. However, unlike soap and water, hand sanitizer doesn't help remove dirt, soil or other particulates. 

Hand sanitizers aren't effective against all types of germs and aren't particularly useful for hands that are visibly dirty. In order to properly use hand sanitizer, you should apply the gel, foam or liquid, rub your hands together and allow it to dry. Many people wipe the excess sanitizer off their hands before it can dry, not allowing it to be optimally successful. Usually one to two squirts the size of a dime is best, Time magazine explained. 

Parents shouldn't use hand sanitizers on young children. If they accidently consume the sanitizer they can become seriously ill – it's very strong alcohol. Also, alcohol-free sanitizers have been shown not to be very effective.

So which one is best? 
Soap and water has been shown to be superior to hand sanitizers for many situations, although experts say that hand sanitizer is a good second choice. Sanitizers aren't able to get rid of germs such as the norovirus, which is a common cause of illness. They also only kill germs, rather than removing them or any other filth, as hand washing does. The physical removal and scrubbing that water and soap provide is the clear distinction and advantage of traditional hand washing over hand sanitizer. 

Restaurant and kitchen employees should incorporate soap and water hand washing into their daily safety routine just like wearing their nonslip shoes and cleaning their workspace. Washing your hands with soap and warm water is incredibly simple, but also effective at keeping your hands clean and your customers healthy. 


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