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Handwashing vs Hand Sanitizer -What’s the Difference?

In this season of flu and coronavirus, experts emphasize keeping your hands clean as the No. 1 defense against infection. But which approach is better: handwashing or hand sanitizer?

Do you walk to the sink and sing the ABCs for 20 seconds as you lather up your hands with soap and water? Or do you save yourself the extra minute and pour on some strong-smelling sanitizing gel?  

The answer is -- both. Dr. Sara Hogan, a dermatologist at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, says knowing when to use which approach, however, can cut down on painfully dry skin.

How do I choose between washing my hands or using sanitizer?

For people like medical providers who wash their hands multiple times a day, it’s helpful to switch between sanitizing gel and handwashing. Right now, the CDC recommendation is to wash hands whenever possible. Hand sanitizer is more precise at killing bacteria and most viruses, but hand washing can effectively remove all dirt, microbes and chemicals on the hands. All elements of handwashing are key—friction for removing debris, soap to emulsify dirt, chemicals and microbes and running water to remove the debris.

How often do I need to clean my hands?

Everyone knows to wash their hands if they are dirty, as well as before meals. You should wash your hands before food preparation, eating, and touching your face. You should wash your hands after taking out the trash, using the bathroom, coughing or sneezing into your hands, blowing your nose, and touching your pets.

Are there differences between handwashing soaps?

A simple bar of soap or gentle liquid cleanser can do the job and reduce drying out the skin. In 2017, the FDA clarified that antibacterial soap doesn’t clean hands better than regular soap. In fact, triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soaps, has been linked to antibiotic resistance.

What should I look for in a hand sanitizer?

An effective hand sanitizer should contain at least 70 percent alcohol. Timing of application is also key – the gel should be rubbed into the skin for at least 30 seconds to absorb and dry completely. Don’t apply too much too quickly or wave your hands around to prevent evaporation.

Can I make my own hand sanitizer? 

Sure! The process of making homemade hand sanitizer, though, can vary greatly in ingredient quality, measurement precision and setting cleanliness. Experts recommend purchasing hand sanitizer for consistency and peace of mind.


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