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If you have soap and water, don’t fret about hand sanitizer

Coronavirus has led to a shortage of hand sanitizers, but worry not: The CDC generally recommends hand washing over hand sanitizers.

There's a new virus in town. Well, many towns, in fact – and it's finding its way to more by the day. While there is still a lot to learn about coronavirus, I can say one thing is certain: It is making a lot of people suddenly freakishly devoted to hygiene.

Consider this. In the United Kingdom, hand sanitizer sales saw a spike of 255 percent, year over year, in February. In the United States, according to data from Adobe Analytics, demand for hand sanitizers skyrocketed by 1,400 percent between December and January. No wonder all the shelves are wiped clean.

But if you didn't get in on the frenzied hoarding, there's likely no need to worry as long as you have soap and water.

On the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) page on COVID-19 Prevention, they write, first and foremost:

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

And then, If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Hand washing versus hand sanitizers

The CDC advises washing hands with soap and water whenever possible because handwashing reduces the amounts of all types of germs and chemicals on hands.

“But if soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. The guidance for effective handwashing and use of hand sanitizer in community settings was developed based on data from a number of studies.”

As it turns out, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but they do not work on all types of germs.

“Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing certain kinds of germs, like Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile1-5,” writes the CDC.

“Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly, people may not use a large enough volume of the sanitizers or may wipe it off before it has dried,” adds the agency.

They also point out that while hand sanitizers work well in clinical settings, where hands are already generally clean, they may not be as effective when hands are dirty or greasy. In such cases, hand washing with soap and water is recommended in such circumstances.

While the next point may not be as relevant when one is worried out about coronavirus, it's nonetheless a good thing to keep in mind: Hand sanitizers don't work on harmful chemicals. “Although few studies have been conducted, hand sanitizers probably cannot remove or inactivate many types of harmful chemicals. In one study, people who reported using hand sanitizer to clean hands had increased levels of pesticides in their bodies.”

Meanwhile, if you have the choice, soap is cheaper and comes with less packaging than sanitizer – and that icing on the cake puts TreeHugger firmly on TeamHandwashing.

How to properly use hand sanitizer

That said, if you don't have soap and water on hand (and you managed to squirrel away some hand sanitizer) here are the tricks to ensure that it works:

  • Make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol. “Many studies have found that sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60–95% are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers,” explains the CDC. “Hand sanitizers without 60-95% alcohol 1) may not work equally well for many types of germs; and 2) merely reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them outright.”
  • Read the label for correct amount to use.
  • Put it in the palm of one hand and rub the product all over the surfaces of both hands until they are dry.

How to properly wash your hands

And in case you need a refresher, here's the play-by-play from the CDC:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Lastly, remember to stop touching your face! Even though it is really no easy task. A small but eye-opening study involving 26 medical students found that they touched their face 23 times per hour. Of all face touches, 44 percent involved contact with a mucous membrane – which is exactly what a sneaky little virus is hoping for.

For more, visit the CDC.

Coronavirus has led to a shortage of hand sanitizers, but worry not: The CDC generally recommends hand washing over hand sanitizers.