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Hand Sanitiser vs Soap: Which One Should You Use?

Over four months on from when the UK was plunged into lockdown, researchers, the government, and indeed the general public are still getting to grips with COVID-19. And although there is still plenty of progress to be made in quelling the virus and getting back to relative normality, if there’s one thing that we’ve mastered, it’s keeping our hands clean… right?

Well, not necessarily. But that doesn’t mean that it’s too late to begin making a conscious effort of keeping your hands clean and avoiding touching your face. After all, Coronavirus is still very much present in the UK and recent local lockdowns are not a great sign for the immediate future.

Hand soap vs sanitiser

One question that is often asked is that of whether it is soap and water or hand sanitiser that does the best job of cleaning hands.

There’s no doubt that when you want to disinfect your hands quickly, reaching for a bottle of hand sanitiser or using a hand sanitiser dispenser is a great option. But how effective is this when compared with washing your hands properly?

Both NHS and Public Health England agree that for a hand sanitiser to be effective in killing most viruses, it needs to contain at least 60% alcohol content (most sanitisers contain between 65-95% alcohol). For those who have sensitive skin or cannot use an alcohol-based sanitiser for other reasons, there are options that don’t contain alcohol that are just as effective at killing all types of coronavirus, including COVID-19. It also depends on the type of virus. Norovirus and rhinovirus are two examples of viruses that are resistant to even strong alcohol-based hand sanitisers. To kill these

A man stood over a sink, washing his hands.

Health experts washing your hands for 20 seconds for the best results. Image credit: Mélissa Jeanty/Unsplash

Does hand sanitiser kill coronavirus?

The good news is that hand sanitisers that have 60%+ alcohol content (that’s most of them!) are very effective at killing coronavirus. According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, coronavirus is an envelope virus, meaning that it has a coating around it which alcohol can attack, thereby killing the virus.

It doesn’t matter what form the sanitiser comes in, whether it’s a gel or foam, whether it comes from a bottle or a pump, or whether it smells nice or potent—what matters is the alcohol content, and this is what you should be looking out for when buying your own or using somebody else’s. For alcohol-free sanitisers, look for information on the label about whether it’s effective against coronavirus.

What about soap and water?

Hand sanitiser and sanitiser pumps are a great option for when you’re on the go and need a quick cleanse. Just got off the bus or train? Sanitise. Been walking around the office touching door handles and now you’re back at your desk? Sanitise. Nipped out for lunch at your favourite café that’s just reopened? Sanitise. You get the idea!

However, for hands that are visibly dirty, washing with soap and water is far more effective than using even the strongest alcohol-based hand sanitisers.

Several research studies have found that the friction of washing together with soap helps to reduce the number of microbes on our hands, as well as getting rid of dirt and other organic matter. If you’ve sneezed or coughed into your hands recently, it’s probably a good idea to wash them too where possible, rather than just disinfecting them. This is because mucous ejected during coughing and sneezing could act as a barrier to protect viruses and other microbes even if you can’t see it.

So, what’s the best option?

As public health officials say, the best and most consistent way of keeping your hands clean and helping to prevent the spread of coronavirus is to wash your hands with soap and water.

But if you can’t get to a handwashing station or if your hands aren’t too dirty, alcohol-based hand sanitisers with at least 60% alcohol (the higher the better) are a practical and effective solution. They’re easy to carry and are quick and easy to use, perfect for when you’re on the go or are doing something where you might pick up germs on your hands, such as riding the train or using a portable toilet.

If you’re using hand sanitiser instead of washing your hands, you still need to ensure that you’re covering the entire surface of your hands, both front and back, between your knuckles, wrists, and fingernails, fully rubbing it in for at least 20 seconds so that it’s fully effective.

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