We select and review products independently. When you purchase through our links we may earn a commission. Learn more.

Are Hand Sanitizers as Effective as Hand Washing?

A woman pouring hand sanitizer on her hands.

Even if you haven’t experienced it first hand yet, you’ve likely heard about the national shortage of hand sanitizer. For want of hand sanitizer, you might be questioning if it’s even worth hunting some down or if handwashing is more effective. Here’s what you need to know.

First and foremost, good hand-washing techniques are more effective than using hand sanitizer—but that doesn’t mean hand sanitizers don’t have their place. Let’s take a closer look.

According to the CDC, “Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing certain kinds of germs” because some strains became more tolerant over time, and people may use hand sanitizers incorrectly, as well as wipe them off before it’s dried out. Some research suggests that hand sanitizers don’t work as efficiently on greasy or soiled hands, as well as could possibly even increase the level of pesticides on the skin, while a recent Japanese study shows its almost non-existent effect on the flu.

Still, in situations where soap and water aren’t available, hand sanitizers are your best option—even though they don’t get rid of all of the germs, it’s better to kill some than none. CDC recommends using hand sanitizers with the alcohol content between 60–95%, as those with less alcohol “may not work equally well for many types of germs and actually merely reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them outright.”

How to Use Hand Sanitizer Properly

Instructions showing how to apply hand sanitizer.

Whether you’re using a hand sanitizer, washing your hands more often, or both, there are certain guidelines you should be following.

When using a hand sanitizer, first and foremost, it’s important to read the label and to apply the correct amount recommended, as using too little can diminish its efficacy and using too much can damage your skin cells, kill the good bacteria, and actually even make you more vulnerable to infection, not to mention throw hand sanitizer down the drain.

Second, rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands (not just your palms!), then wait until it dries off. Wiping it off before it got a chance to dry means you’re ignoring the time-on-surface element of sanitizing—it applies to your skin when using sanitizers, just like it applies to your kitchen counter.

How to Wash Your Hands Properly

Hand washing instructions detailing the steps of effective hand washing.

There are specific guidelines for washing your hands the correct way, as even though you believe you know how to do it because you learned it when you were 2 years old, there’s a good chance you’re doing it wrong. This is what the CDC recommends:

  • Turn on the water faucet and wet your hands. The water temperature doesn’t matter, and in fact, being exposed to hot water for longer periods of time can actually irritate the skin even more.
  • Turn off the running water and apply soap. Turning the faucet off saves water, and there’s little-to-zero evidence of whether there’s a risk of transferring any germs from touching the faucet. Using soap is the most important part, as specific compounds found in soap called surfactants are responsible for lifting dirt, soil, and microbes from the skin. Also, people tend to rub more thoroughly if they’re not only using water.
  • Rub the soap all over your hands—not just the palms. Wash your entire hands, above and beyond, in between your fingers, under your nails, and around your cuticles. Be as thorough as you can. There’s actually even proof that those wearing artifical nails can hide all sorts of germs under, so if you’re regularly visiting your salon for a fresh manicure, pay more attention to cleaning them correctly.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. The actual time of scrubbing depends on how dirty your hands are, as obviously, those with more soil or dirt on them will spend more time washing it all off. Spending 20 seconds just for a regular “came home from work” or “after bathroom run” hand wash can sound exaggerated, especially when you start timing yourself, but is there really any point to risk it?
  • Rinse under clean, running water, until you’ve gotten rid of the soap in its entirety. The exact timing will depend on the soap quality and consistency, as some tend to be greasier than others.
  • Use a clean towel to dry your hands or air dry. Germs and bacteria love damp and wet environments, so the risk of transferring or catching something is greater if your hands aren’t dry. Air drying is best in places where there’s a large circulation of people and the risk of touching a towel someone’s previously touched is greater.

If this sounds a whole lot more involved than the way you’ve been washing your hands, don’t feel bad—before this pandemic made handwashing a hot topic, most people were doing a pretty lackluster job of it.

Finally, Don’t Overdo It

Even though washing your hands and using hand sanitizers can help you protect yourself from some germs hiding on surfaces and objects, you shouldn’t go crazy and set a timer on your phone to rub your hands or run to the bathroom every 15 minutes.

Overuse of alcohol-based solutions, disinfecting soap, and even water can be counterproductive in the long run as it can irritate your skin and create wounds, therefore causing it to become more vulnerable to infections. It can also negatively impact your immune system as it strips you of the good bacteria living on your skin’s surface.

And, while we’re talking about precautions, don’t forget to focus on other things that prevent diseases and keep you safe, such as getting enough sleep, exercising, eating nutritious food, smarter supplementation with vitamins and minerals, and being more cautious when attending large social gatherings or being in close proximity to those who are expressing symptoms of any sort. Washing your hands is critical, of course, but taking care of the rest of your body is critical, too!

The verdict is definitely in favor of washing your hands more often and with more attention, but in cases where that’s not possible or in places like hospitals and other clinical settings, using a hand sanitizer with a high alcohol percentage (60-95%) is still your best bet.

Karla Tafra Karla Tafra
Karla is a certified yoga teacher, nutritionist, content creator and an overall wellness coach with over 10 years of international experience in teaching, writing, coaching, and helping others transform their lives. From Croatia to Spain and now, the US, she calls Seattle her new home where she lives and works with her husband. Read Full Bio »
LifeSavvy is focused on a single goal: helping you make the most informed purchases possible. Want to know more?