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Are hand sanitizers as effective as hand washing?

Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of pathogenic organisms (germs); however, there are times when soap and water are not available or when it’s just not practical. For those times a chemical hand sanitizer is the next best thing. Although using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol is preferable to doing nothing, sanitizers do have limitations:

  • Sanitizers are not immediately effective on every pathogen and may have minimal effects if they evaporate or dry to quickly,

  • Their effectiveness is greatly reduced when the hands are visibly dirty or greasy since the alcohol can't come in contact with the microscopic organism,

  • Sanitizers work by adding a chemical (alcohol) to the hands so they do nothing to remove chemicals such as drug residues or insecticides, and

  • Hand sanitizers have no effect on future exposures and must be reapplied after each exposure event.

They also have some risk. Since all hand sanitizers use alcohol as the active ingredient, excessive use can cause drying, chafing and irritation to the hands. Likewise, until the alcohol dries, it presents a risk of fire if a person smokes too soon after applying it and a risk of poisoning when they use their fingers to place food or gum in their mouth. Sure, we're talking about small amounts, but both of those situations occur every day! As a matter of fact, the CDC has published guidance on the safe storage and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers: (

Overall, hand sanitizers are an effective tool in the fight against the spread of diseases, but they are not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. As with any tool, they must be used in the right way at the right time.


Did You Know...?

Hand sanitizers are considered over-the-counter products and regulated by the FDA.

Click here to go to the FDA's Question & Answer Page for hand sanitizers.