washing your hands vs. hand sanitizer

In 1846, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that women giving birth in the medical maternity ward of his hospital had a much higher death rate at the hands of students and doctors than the women cared for by the midwives in a different ward of the hospital. 

Semmelweis noticed that the students and doctors performed both surgeries and autopsies, while the midwives did not. He hypothesized that the students and doctors were getting pieces of the corpses, which he then called “cadaverous materials,” on their hands. Then when they went to deliver babies, these particles would get inside the women who would develop diseases and die, usually within 24 hours.

To test his theory, Semmelweis ordered the medical staff to clean their hands and instruments with soap and water and a chlorine solution, which dramatically reduced the rate of death from disease. While our understanding of germs and bacteria has advanced far in the years since, Semmelweis’ discovery initially showed that handwashing is an essential practice for public health and the medical field. It can help keep people from getting sick, prevent disease spread, and keep infections at bay.

In recent years, alcohol-based hand sanitizers have grown in popularity, sometimes eclipsing the traditional use of soap and water. However, even these advanced gels can’t replace the effect of simply washing your hands. Let’s take a closer look at the use of hand sanitizer, and why handwashing still matters.


How to Use Hand Sanitizer 

As children, we are taught about the importance of washing our hands. However, over the years, we may not wash them as often, or we may choose to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead of soap and water. During the COVID-19 pandemic, using both forms of cleansing became incredibly important as everyone worked together to lessen the spread of the virus. 

Using alcohol-based gels and foams with an alcohol concentration of at least 60% is effective for killing germs when used properly. However, studies show that people tend to either not apply enough or wipe it off before it fully dries. 

To properly use hand sanitizer, use the label-recommended amount on the palm of one hand and rub the product over the surface of both of your hands until they are dry. The ideal dry time is typically 30 seconds or less. While that doesn’t sound like a long time, some people automatically reach for a towel or wipe their hands on their clothing instead of waiting.


When Not to Use Hand Sanitizer

If your only option for having clean hands is hand sanitizer, it is certainly better than nothing. However, there are a few times when it may not be as effective as handwashing.

Many studies have shown that hand sanitizers may not work at their full capacity when hands are heavily soiled or greasy, or if you need to remove harmful chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals. Sanitizers tend to be much more effective in settings where germs are present, but hands are not necessarily soiled.

After people have handled food, worked in a garden, engaged in outdoor recreation, or played sports, their hands may be dirty or oily. In these cases, handwashing is recommended over hand sanitizer.


Hand Sanitizer Safety

When used as directed on your hands, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are safe. However, swallowing it can cause alcohol poisoning. Poison control centers receive approximately 21,000 calls a year regarding hand sanitizer exposure amongst children. 

Be sure to store hand sanitizers out of the reach of young children who may be attracted to the brightly colored packaging or appealing scents. Older children and adults might even consume hand sanitizers on purpose to get drunk.

If swallowed, it can lower blood sugar, leading to seizures and coma in extreme situations. The first treatment after a child drinks alcohol, from any source, in any case, is to give them something sweet to drink. 

Hand sanitizers can also irritate the stomach, causing nausea and vomiting. If you suspect yourself or someone you know has swallowed alcohol-based hand sanitizer, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.


Properly Washing Your Hands with Soap and Water

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), washing your hands with soap and water is almost always preferable to using hand sanitizer, which is not always as effective as soap when eliminating germs and viruses. Proper handwashing can also reduce the rate of pediatric respiratory infections by 25-50%.

There are countless handwashing video tutorials on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. You can also follow these basic steps to handwashing:

  1. Using clean, running water, wet your hands before applying at least a quarter-sized amount of soap to one palm.
  2. Bring the soap to a lather by rubbing your hands together, being sure to lather the backs of your hands, in between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
  3. Scrub your hands together for at least 20-30 seconds.
  4. To finish, rinse your hands under clean, running water and dry your hands with a clean towel or air-dry.


Key Times for Washing Your Hands

According to the CDC, washing your hands at home and in public is essential to reducing the spread of germs. Some key times to do so are:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • When treating a wound or cut
  • When interacting with someone who is sick, especially with vomiting or diarrhea
  • When changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After using the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching garbage
  • When touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats


The Science of Water

Washing your hands with contaminated water is counterproductive. The cleaner the water you use to wash your hands, the cleaner your hands will be. Using filtered water is ideal, especially when washing your hands for germ control. 

At The Science of Water, we are an authorized dealer of the Puronics line of whole-home water filtration systems. They are a cost-effective, eco-friendly way to ensure you provide your home with quality, highly filtered, crystal clear water for drinking, cooking, and washing. Our filtration systems fit conveniently under your kitchen sink and can also be plumbed into your refrigerator’s in-door water and ice dispenser.

Visit our website today to take advantage of our free water test and estimate, so we can best determine which filtration system is best for your needs and your home.



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