Which is better: washing your hands with soap and water or using a hand santiser?
Much has been written by manufacturers on both sides of this question, is the traditional way of washing hands with soap better than using a quick drying hand sanitiser!
Soap manufacturers and suppliers are quick to point out that the combination of soap and water is a better option than using a sanitiser since the physical act of hand washing removes any soiling and bacteria.
Manufacturers of sanitising products, meanwhile, argue that alcohol sanitisers are a fast and effective option, particularly in situations where there is no water supply. In addition, hand sanitisers also actually kill 99.9% of bacteria on hands rather than simply rinsing it away.
Soaps contain surfactants which mean they increase the ability of water to clean hands. Surfactants also help to loosen and emulsify any dirt on the skin which can then be easily rinsed away. When using soap, the oily dirt on hands is broken down by a chemical action while the friction created by rubbing hands together uses a mechanical method to remove the soiling.
This means that the longer hands are rubbed together with soap and water, the fewer microbes will remain.
Drying hands with a paper towel is a further aid to hand hygiene since the physical act of rubbing will remove any remaining bacteria.
Not drying properly and leaving hands damp provide a breeding ground for bacteria, which is why hands need to be thoroughly dried after washing.
Hand sanitisers have become available only relatively recently (and seen massive growth since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic) and these tend to be used as a supplement to hand washing in hygiene-critical sectors such as healthcare and food production/preparation.
Sanitisers are undoubtedly highly convenient in situations where there is no water supply or where hands need to be sanitised quickly, or on the go
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), many people use an insufficient volume of hand sanitiser on their hands to effectively kill bacteria or else they rub it off before it has had a chance to dry. This is also the case for soaps, and only clinical staff tend to wash hands correctly anyway (paying careful attention to all parts of hands including the thumbs, backs of the hands, fingertips, and the areas between the fingers).
So it appears that both soaps and sanitisers are both viable solutions and that each complements the other. NICE in the UK actually recommend the use of hand sanitisers in the first instance in healthcare except when the hands are visibly soiled and when there is a potential contamination risk from Clostridium difficile or the norovirus. But in order to improve hand hygiene in healthcare, staff needs to be educated about the most efficient ways of washing, drying and sanitising the hands.
They should be given easy access to wash stations containing effective and user-friendly soaps and hand towels, plus sanitiser stations equipped with effective products that are also kind to hands. Once healthcare staff know what to do and how to do it – and are given the tools to do it quickly, easily and thoroughly – hand hygiene will become second nature and this will lead to healthier outcomes across the board.