Will hand sanitiser clean my hands properly?

Does hand sanitiser offer the same level of protection against germs as soap and water?
Does hand sanitiser offer the same level of protection against germs as soap and water?

You should wash your hands at least six times a day on average. It may seem like a lot, but think about how often you use the bathroom, prepare food, eat, sneeze, cough, touch things…

Hand hygiene goes a long way toward preventing illness – and can reduce the risk of communicable diseases by up to 59%

But how do you keep your hands clean when there is a drought and you’re urged to save water? 

The most common solution is to reach for the hand sanitiser. But how effective is it and does it need to contain alcohol?

Going waterless

Research shows that alcohol-based hand sanitisers may not offer complete protection against harmful germs. Experts say that good old-fashioned soap and water is still the best way to keep your hands clean.

According to an article on Emerging Infectious Diseases, the FDA recommends a concentration of 60-95% ethanol or isopropanol (kinds of alcohol) when used in a healthcare environment.

However, for those of us in non-healthcare settings, they do not specify the appropriate concentration of alcohol.

When it comes to preventing the common cold, however, a study published in the Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy journal shows that hand sanitisers that contain ethanol are more effective at removing the rhinovirus from hands than soap and water. Sanitisers with ethanol or organic acids were able to reduce the spread of the virus effectively.

“The ethanol-containing hand disinfectants were significantly more effective than hand washing with water or with soap and water for removal of detectable rhinovirus for the hands in this study,” the researchers said.

“Furthermore, a formula containing organic acids and ethanol resulted in residual activity that significantly reduced virus recovery from the hands and rhinovirus infection for up to four hours after application.”

What does this mean for hand hygiene?

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol-based handrubs should be used in “resource-limited or remote areas with lack of accessibility to sinks or other facilities for hand hygiene (including clean water, towels, etc.)”.

Currently, Capetonians are restricted to 50l of water per person per day. Under the guidelines from the City of Cape Town, 3l are allocated for daily hygiene, which includes hand washing.

So you don’t necessarily need to forgo the water and soap – just don’t leave the tap running while you wash. Wet your hands (close the tap), add soap and scrub for 20 seconds, then rinse and dry. 

How to use hand sanitiser

Although you might want to make every effort to save water, there are instances where you cannot use hand sanitisers. If your hands are visibly dirty or you’ve handled chemicals, you need to use soap and water instead.

If you are using hand sanitiser, make sure you use it correctly. People often make the mistake of not using enough – you need at least a dime-sized amount (17.9mm in diameter or about the size of a contact lens).

Put it in the palm of one hand and then rub your hands together. Make sure you cover every surface of your hands – get between your fingers, around your fingertips and nails.  

Rub your hands together for about 30 seconds before the sanitiser dries. Avoid touching food or surfaces until your hands are completely dry.

Image credit: iStock

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