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Hand Washing Vs. Hand Sanitizer

By Lisa Sefcik ; Updated July 18, 2017

Infectious diseases are the third-leading cause of death in the United States, and many of the contagions responsible are passed from one person to another by unclean hands, according the MicrobeWorld website. Cleaning your hands is extremely important to prevent colds, influenza and food-borne illnesses, to name only a few. There are two methods of hand cleansing: the old-fashioned soap and water method and the use of more convenient hand sanitizers.

Hand Washing

To wash your hands, all you need is warm water, bar or liquid soap, and a clean towel -- or, if using a public facility, paper towels or an air dryer. Surprisingly, antibacterial soap isn't any better at getting rid of germs than normal soap. In fact, antibacterial soap may cause you to develop bacteria that are immune to the soap's antimicrobial properties. Simply wet your hands, lather well, wash for 20 seconds and rinse. Blot dry with a towel or use an air dryer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using your paper towel to turn off the tap, if you're using a public facility.

Hand Sanitizer

To be an effective hand-cleansing agent, a hand sanitizer should contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Pop-up and prepackaged towelettes can be used in a pinch, but these are generally less effective than hand sanitizers. Simply apply enough of the gel to wet your hands thoroughly. Rub your hands together well -- for around 25 seconds -- until the sanitizer dries. Children can also use gel hand sanitizers, but place the container out of reach after your child uses it.

Which One's Best?

Choose hand washing over the use of a hand sanitizer whenever you can, according to the CDC. If you don't have access to soap and running water -- such as if you're picnicking outdoors or camping -- choose hand sanitizer. You should also wash your hands with soap and water if you look at them and they appear visibly dirty.

When to Wash or Sanitize

Cleansing your hands is recommended in a variety of situations. Wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer before you prepare food, treat wounds, eat, touch someone who's sick or injured, or put in or take out contact lenses. Wash or sanitize your hands after handling foods (especially raw poultry and other meat), touching an animal, using the bathroom, tending to wounds, taking out garbage, or touching someone who's ill or injured. Also, cleanse your hands after you blow your nose, or sneeze or cough into your palms.


Children who are exposed to group settings are particularly vulnerable to infection. Make sure that your child knows about good hygiene by modeling good hand washing or hand sanitizing techniques. If your child attends group child care, inquire if the facility promotes hand washing or the use of hand sanitizers not only before meals, but whenever appropriate.

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