When to Use Soap vs. Hand Sanitizer

when to use sanitizer vs soapHand hygiene has been a primary tool in keeping the public healthy during this pandemic. Americans are washing their hands more frequently and for longer.1

Keeping your hands clean is one of the best ways to remove germs from your hands, but the overuse of some soaps and water can lead to dry and damaged skin. It’s important to not only keep your skin clean, but also healthy.

So, when should you wash your hands and when should you sanitize them?

First a little science

The skin on your hands play a major role in your overall health.2-4 It’s made up of skin cells and lipids.5,6 When your skin is healthy, these cells are well organized and work in harmony to keep moisture in and pathogens, irritants, allergens, and pollutants out.7,8 When your skin becomes damaged, the lipids are disrupted and sometimes washed away, leaving biochemical and physical gaps where moisture escapes and bad actors can enter.7-10

Early warning signs of skin damage:

  • Dryness
  • Tightness
  • Flaking or itching of the knuckles, back of hands and between fingers

Advanced signs of skin damage:

  • Damage that involves the palms of the hands
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Blistering
  • Bleeding
  • Cracking (especially around fingernails)
  • Difficulty making a fist (extreme tightness)

What can you do to protect your skin?

If you find yourself with the warning signs of skin damage, take control of your skin.

Keep your skin hydrated with moisturizers that are well-formulated and from brands you trust. Keeping your hands moisturized will increase the natural lipids and moisturizing factors already present in your skin, boost skin cell turnover, and relieve dryness. The ideal times to use skin lotion is right before bed, at the beginning of your work shift or daily activities, and soon after washing your hands or exposing them to water (e.g. doing dishes or taking a shower).

When washing your hands, use cool or room-temperature water and dry your hands thoroughly. The temperature of the water does not appear to significantly affect bacteria removal; however, warmer water may cause more skin irritation. Water temperature as high as 100°F (38°C)  and as low as 60°F (15°C) does not have a significant effect on the reduction of bacteria during hand washing.11

When to wash your hands

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), always wash your hands if they are visibly soiled. It’s also important to use soap and water during these key moments: 12

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

When to use hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer should be used when soap and water are not readily available. According to the CDC, you should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Consider using hand sanitizer during these key moments12:

  • After visiting your local grocery store
  • Before and after visiting a public place
  • After pumping gas
  • After touching handrails (or other surfaces commonly touched by others)

Carrying hand sanitizer with you when visiting a public place is important, although, many public places are beginning to offer hand hygiene solutions. The World Health Organization recommends that public and private buildings offer one or several sanitizing stations to use before entering and when leaving, to ensure everyone is practicing hand hygiene.13

When applying hand sanitizer, remember to use enough to thoroughly wet your hands, rub briskly until dry – and don’t forget your fingertips, thumbs, and in between your fingers. This should take around 15-20 seconds with a well-formulated product.

What causes the most damage?

Hand hygiene with quality products will not damage your skin, but many other factors can hurt your skin condition, such as cold temperatures, dry weather, and gloving. The overuse of soap and water can also lead to damaged skin. Washing too often washes lipids away faster than the natural recovery process of your body, causing dry or damaged skin.

Hand sanitizer is a leave-on product that doesn’t remove skin lipids, even with repeated use. A well-formulated product kills germ on your hands that may cause illness and evaporates quickly, while leaving moisturizers behind to nourish the skin.

For over 30 years – since we created the first PURELL® Hand Sanitizer in 1988 – we have carefully formulated and tested our proprietary hand sanitizers to kill the most common germs, be gentle on skin, have a great user experience, and be as safe as possible.

74 years ago GOJO developed the world’s first waterless hand cleaner. Over the years, GOJO has continued to innovate in the category, culminating in the release of PURELL® Brand HEALTHY SOAP® with CLEAN RELEASE TECHNOLOGY™,  a breakthrough soap technology which leaves hands cleaner while also maintaining your skin’s health.

So, which is better?

When keeping your hands clean, there is a role for both soap and water, and hand sanitizer. Evaluate the situation and decide based on whether your hands are visibly soiled, your skin condition, any time constraints, and your setting (e.g. if there is a sink nearby).

For information and resources from the CDC’s Life is Better with Clean Hands campaign, visit cdc.gov/handwashing/.  #KeepHandsClean