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COVID-19 Infection Prevention: Soap and Water or Hand Sanitizer?

March 2, 2020

Every flu season, the message is spread about how to protect yourself from getting the influenza virus. Aside from getting the flu vaccine, the next best protection from becoming ill is regular and thorough hand washing. Now that the world is consumed with news about the new virus, COVID-19, the hand washing message is stronger than ever. As with all infections, COVID-19 could trigger sepsis. Reducing your risk of contracting COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, reduces the risk of serious illness.

Washing Your Hands

We all know how to wash our hands, right? We make them wet, lather them up and rinse them off. What could we be doing wrong?

The most common error when washing your hands is not washing them long enough. Many people quickly thrust their hands under the running water. They then add a bit of soap, quickly lather, rinse, and walk away. Or they dab several drops of hand sanitizer, rub quickly, and move on. But how long you wash, when you use soap and water versus sanitizer, as well as how you wash is important.

Soap and Water

The temperature of the water isn’t as important as it being running water. Water that has been sitting in a basin can be contaminated. Wet your hands well and then apply your soap, either bar or liquid. Liquid soap is best because you don’t touch a bar of soap that’s been already used by someone else. Soap is a necessary part of the process because it helps lift the dirt off the skin.

Lather your hands together to spread the soap, but don’t limit it to the palms of your hands. Ensure you spread the soap over the tops of your hands, to your wrists, all your fingers (including your thumbs) and between each finger. Lathering is the action that releases the dirt, so don’t skip it. Curl your fingers of one hand into the palm of the other, and lightly scrub so the soap and water gets under your nails. Continue the hand washing process for at least 20 seconds. If you’re teaching a child how to wash their hands, you can tell them to hum or sing Happy Birthday twice for the correct length of time.

Once the time is up and you’ve thoroughly washed your hands, place them under running water again to rinse them well. The running water will help release clinging dirt or germs, and cleans the skin of left over soap, which can dry and irritate the skin.

Dry your hands thoroughly but gently. Don’t rub your skin hard, just blot the water off. Don’t skip this step because if you have any left over germs on your hands, they are more easily transferred when your hands are wet.

Hand Sanitizers

But what about hand sanitizers? Are they as good as using soap and water? Hand sanitizers are convenient as we can carry small bottles of it around with us. This allows us to clean our hands wherever we are. But they’re not effective for every germ. “Hand hygiene with hand sanitizers is effective for most infections, but for soap and water is more effective for Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection and norovirus,” explained Cindy Hou, DO, the Infection Control Officer at Jefferson Health New Jersey and an infectious diseases specialist with Jefferson Health Infectious Diseases. Dr. Hou is also a member of the Sepsis Alliance Advisory Board. “If my hands are soiled, I use old-fashioned soap and water as that is more effective at removing germs than hand sanitizer.”

That being said, if you are going to use a hand sanitizer to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, Dr. Hou recommends you look for a product that is at least 60% alcohol to be effective.

Hand sanitizers are most effective when your hands aren’t visibly dirty. For example, you may want to use it when you sit down at a restaurant, before you eat or if you’re at a gathering and you’re shaking a lot of hands.

The method for cleaning with a sanitizer is similar to soap and water. Apply the label-recommended amount of the product into the palm of your hand and rub your hands together, covering all surfaces, as you would normally when washing. Allow the sanitizer to dry completely before you touch anything.

To learn more about COVID-19, visit Sepsis and Coronavirus (COVID-19)