Soap Vs. Hand Sanitizer: The Best Way To Keep Your Hands Clean

soap vs hand sanitizer
soap vs hand sanitizer

Growing up, we have all heard of the importance of hand hygiene for keeping infections at bay. And whether you’re a germaphobe or concerned parent, it’s easy to be tempted by hand sanitizers. All you need to do is carry little bottles of fragrant goodness. Just squeeze, rub your hands, and voila – clean hands. What’s not to love?

It turns out there’s quite a bit. Recent studies aren’t too crazy about over-the-counter hand sanitizers or hand rubs. Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seems concerned and has asked manufacturers to provide details regarding their ingredients by Dec 27, 2016. 1


In the meantime, here are some facts to weigh in the next time you squeeze some sanitizer on your hands.

Soap Versus Hand Sanitizer: Which Is Better?

As some experts point out, hand sanitizers are useful in certain settings like hospitals where people come into contact with microbes very often. They’re also especially handy for the peak of respiratory virus season, November to April.2However, for everyday use, sanitizers can’t beat soap and water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also share the same opinion, suggesting that soap and water are your best bet and that sanitizers should be used only when you have no access to these.3


Need proof? Here are a few ways in which soap and water score over sanitizers.

  • Kills Specific Germs: Soap is much more capable of killing microorganisms that cause viral gastroenteritis4and swine flu.5It can also do a better job at destroying Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that causes diarrhea, colitis, abdominal pain, and bloating.6
  • Removes Dirt And Grease: When your hands are heavily soiled after playing, hiking, camping, or cooking, sanitizers can’t match the efficiency of soap and water in removing dirt and grease.7
  • Removes Pesticides And Chemicals: One study conducted in Washington assessed pesticide exposure of orchard workers and children in their household. Higher concentrations of pesticides were found among those that used hand sanitizers, indicating that soap is more efficient for washing off chemicals.8

The Full Breakdown Of Sanitizer Ingredients

If soap or clean water is beyond your reach, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using an alcohol-based hand rub. After all, the main ingredient, alcohol, is an effective germ-killer. Alcohol-free sanitizers are not as effective and, sometimes, they can even be harmful. For your safety, avoid the following chemicals.



Hand sanitizers and medicated soaps contain an antiseptic and antibacterial agent called chlorhexidine. Indiscriminate use can lead to microbial resistance, causing germs to mutate. If the concentration of chlorhexidine is more than 4%, it can also cause contact dermatitis.9


Triclosan is a pesticide used as an antibacterial agent in soaps, toothpaste, and other personal care products. Some studies have shown that it does more harm than good. Just like chlorhexidine, it is known to cause microbial resistance.10


In animal studies, triclosan was linked to hormone disruption. This means that it can affect the brain, immunity, and reproductive system, causing issues such as obesity, early puberty, infertility, and cancer. Other studies have shown that it can impair learning and memory, worsen allergies, and weaken muscles.11

Triclosan was recently banned in the US in antiseptic washes. However, the ruling does not apply to hand sanitizers or wipes just yet.12


Alcohol (For Children)

While alcohol-free hand sanitizers are not recommended, alcohol-based sanitizers should be kept away from children. Hand rubs often look and smell like candy. It’s definitely bad news if your child mistakes it for food. They can also contain anywhere between 40–95 percent alcohol, much more than hard liquor and almost six times more than wine. Alcohol poisoning can cause some mild effects such as confusion, vomiting, and drowsiness. In the worst cases, it can also cause respiratory arrest and even death. Since 2011, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has managed over 17,000 cases related to hand sanitizers in children under 12 years old.13Reason enough to be careful!

The effects of exposure to ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol in adults is not well documented. This is precisely why they are on the FDA’s watch list.


Despite these reasons, you might be tempted to use a hand sanitizer that claims to prevent life-threatening, difficult-to-cure infections such as MRSA staph. But what’s worth noting is that the FDA has issued a warning here as well – these claims are false, and you shouldn’t fall for them.14

How To Use A Hand Sanitizer

Of course, there will be times when you have to depend on hand rubs or wipes to clean your hands. In such cases, follow these steps to ensure that you do so properly.

  1. Cup your hands. Apply one or two squirts of sanitizer.
  2. Rub your hands palm to palm, on the back of your hands, and in between fingers. Reach every nook and corner.
  3. Once your hands dry, you are good to go.15

Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer

If you are too wary of using commercial sanitizers, you can make one at home with natural and safe ingredients. Effective and fragrant ingredients include essential oils of tea tree, lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, clove, or thyme. You can use aloe vera gel, filtered water, or olive oil as base. Combine in a squeeze bottle and use.16

We must eat a peck of dirt before we die, according to an old proverb. That “dirt” depends on the personal care products you choose. Choose wisely.