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Hand Sanitizer and Hand Soap: The Differences and How to Use Them

What they are, how they work and how to use them most effectively.


The need to stay safe and healthy can literally be a matter of life and death during the current global pandemic. The novel coronavirus has affected hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of months, impacting countless lives through its spread, not to mention countrywide lockdowns, shelter-in-place mandates, business closures and overburdened hospitals. If we’re able to slow the spread and flatten the curve, the devastating impact of the infectious disease can be lessened.

Coronavirus spreads through moisture droplets in the air, transferred when an infected person sneezes or coughs, as well as via surfaces on which the virus lives. Though the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that coming into contact with contaminated surfaces is not the main way the virus is contracted, viruses can potentially be transferred from these surfaces to our hands which often comes into contact with our eyes, nose and mouth where viruses can enter our body.

So, when it comes to preventing the spread, it is imperative that we take the necessary steps which include cleaning and disinfecting our hands. To learn the difference between hand sanitizer and hand soap, we did the research and chatted with Dr. Linda Anegawa, MD, a physician at the virtual healthcare platform PlushCare.

Hand Sanitizer

What is it? Hand sanitizer is a liquid or gel used to disinfect the hands. Think products like Purell or Germ-X which are alcohol-based.

How does it work? “Essentially, alcohol disrupts the surface of the virus so that it can’t bind as well,” Dr. Anegawa explains, “Things like bleach, alcohol and like Lysol all kill viruses within about 10 to 30 seconds of contact time.”

Why should you use it? Hand sanitizers can drastically reduce the number of microbes on your hands and using a sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol can be effective at killing germs.

How to use it. The CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol in order to be effective. “Make sure it covers every exposed surface of your hands and give it at least 30 seconds to fully dry,” says Dr. Anegawa. She notes that sometimes people have a tendency to pour hand sanitizer on their hands and wipe off the ‘excess.’ Don’t. Instead, let the sanitizer dry completely.

When and where to use it. Hand sanitizer is not a replacement for hand soap. However, when you don’t have immediate access to a sink with soap, having hand sanitizer on your person is helpful. When you’re out of the house on necessary duties and your hands come into contact with any potentially infected surface (e.g. supermarket pushcarts, debit card readers, door handles, etc.), it’s good practice to use hand sanitizer until you’re back home with a sink and soap. Until then, try not to touch anything else.

Scent-Free Hand Sanitizer by Art Naturals $13 (two-pack)

Advanced Hand Sanitizer by Purell Learn More: Here

Hand Soap

What is it? In technical terms, soap is a salt of a fatty acid used to clean. “There’s a difference between cleaning and disinfection,” explains Dr. Anegawa. “Cleaning is the removal of dirt and impurities from surfaces. And disinfection is the killing of viruses and bacteria that cause disease. Hand sanitizers will only disinfect.”

While disinfection is key, she goes on to say that people underestimate the importance of cleaning as well as disinfection, noting that “If your hands still harbor dust, if they harbor dirt, those are additional surface areas where viruses and bacteria can land and live.”

How does it work? According to Harvard University, soap works “by mechanically removing [germs] from your hands. Running water by itself does a pretty good job of germ removal, but soap increases the overall effectiveness by pulling unwanted material off the skin and into the water.”

Why should you use it? “When you’re in a pinch, hand sanitizer is better than nothing,” Dr. Anegawa says, “but the gold standard will always be soap and water, washing for a good 20 seconds.”

How to use it. Follow this five-step process according to the CDC: 1) Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. 2) Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. 3) Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. 4) Rinse your hands with clean, running water. 5) Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry them.

When and where to use it. Use hand soap after using the bathroom, before preparing food, after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose and after you’ve been in contact with surfaces that have not been sanitized.

Pure-Castile Liquid Soap by Dr. Bronner’s $7

Hand Soap, Lavender + Coconut by Everyone $10 (three-pack)

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