Soap vs Sanitizer: What’s the Best?

Health News
3 min read

Believe it or not, the most powerful weapon against any contagious disease is summed up in a three-word phrase you would have heard a million times from your mother: Wash Your Hands.

That’s great advice but what should we wash our hands with? Is the good old soap enough and are hand sanitizers really effective?


How Clean Are Your Hands?

  • Around the world, handwashing rates are low. Only 0 to 30% people wash their hands globally after using the loo or before a meal: UNICEF
  • Handwashing with soap before eating, cooking and after using the toilet can reduce diarrhoea rates by almost 40% in India: UNICEF
  • And proper hand washing is important - our hands can harbour nasty bugs
  • Include E.coli, salmonella, the superbug MRSA, as well as flu viruses
  • For handwashing, technique is more important than technology

Do Hand Sanitizers Work?

Caution: Not all soaps and sanitizers are created equal.

Don’t stop washing your hands, but don’t hesitate to slather on the sanitizer after caressing a doorknob. (Photo: iStock)

University of Maryland did a study in 2013 and found that using soap instead of water alone killed thrice as many germs.

In this study, antibacterial soap, regular liquid soap and sanitizers were pitted against each other to find out the most effective way to clean hands and kill germs.

The result: Participants who scrubbed their hands for full 20 seconds (you’ll be surprised how long 20 seconds is) had 50% lesser bacteria than those who did it for 5 to 10 seconds. The antibacterial soap was only slightly better than normal soap and the sanitizer which contained more than 60% alcohol was as effective as regular soap.

So based on the results, soap is the best for the critters crawling on your skin. But as long as the sanitizer contains 60% alcohol, it will kill the germs too. That said, sanitizers aren’t a magic bullet and don’t lose sleep over fears of germ-resistance. Bacteria need prolonged exposure to a substance to develop resistance, and because the alcohol in hand sanitizers evaporates quickly when exposed to air, that doesn’t really happen.

The bottom line on hand washing: Alcohol kills viruses and soap, any soap used well, washes them off. When it comes to hand hygiene, technique is more important than technology.

When to Use Which

The World Health Organisation also insists that washing hands with soap and running water as the gold standard. (Photo: iStock)

The first catch when it comes to sanitizers is the alcohol concentration: Anything below 60% alcohol will not kill microbes. Remember 59% is also not good enough.

Washing hands with soap should be your first choice but if you sneeze in your car or stop to put contact lenses and there’s no water available, in those cases, alcohol-based hand sanitizers (of the correct formulation) are godsend, not to replace soap and water, but as an important supplement.

Sanitizers can kill germs but not cut through grime. Regular use in children can lower their immunity and even cause alcohol poisoning if little ones put their sanitized hands in their mouths.

So how much goop should you use? Vigorously rub all sides of your hands and through the fine lines to get them wet, and scrub till they are dry. If your hands are dry within 15 seconds, according to the World Health Organisation guidelines, you haven’t used enough.

Also Read: Busted! 7 Places You Didn’t Know Were Germ Bombs

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
Read More