Suppose you just sneezed into your hands. I would recommend trying to sneeze into the elbow crease, but things happen. Anyway, now that your hypothetical hands are sneeze covered, what do you do? Of course, you need to clean them. You have two options, use the hand sanitizer nearby or go to the bathroom and wash them with soap and water. Which do you think is better at sanitizing the hands, killing the germs, and preventing the spread of disease?
The CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water when it is available because it is the most effective method for reducing the number of microbes. Hand sanitizers without alcohol do not kill all germs, can promote germ resistance, reduces the growth of the germs without killing them completely, and may cause skin irritation. Hand sanitizers with alcohol are better, but still do not eliminate all types of germs including Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile. If you are going to use hand sanitizers, opt for hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol.
When your hands are visibly dirty, always use soap and water to clean them. The CDC and numerous studies support evidence that hand sanitizers are effective when used on slightly dirty hands, such as after daily activities in typical hospitals or office settings, but are ineffective when used after dirtier activities, such as playing sports, gardening, or camping. If hands are exposed to hazardous chemical substances, use soap and water to wash your hands; hand sanitizers were not made to remove or neutralize chemicals and they may be ineffective or exacerbate skin irritation or damage.
So, in our hypothetical sneeze situation, find a sink and wash your hands correctly. If that is not an option, use the hand sanitizer; it’s better than nothing. Just remember to wash your hands as soon as soap and water is available, avoid contact with public surfaces, and don’t touch your face. Other ways to reduce the spread of disease include:
- Get vaccinated, including yearly flu vaccinations and booster shots
- Use antibiotics sensibly, don’t take antibiotics to fight a viral infection
- Disinfect bathrooms and kitchens regularly, such as wiping surfaces and washing towels
- Practice safe sex, such as using a condom
- Stay home when you’re sick, both from work and going to public spaces
- Be smart about food preparation, such as cooking meat thoroughly
- Don’t share personal items, such as toothbrushes or lipstick
University of Puget Sound (n.d) Preventing the Spread of Infectious Disease. http://www.pugetsound.edu/student-life/counseling-health-and-wellness/health-topics/preventing-the-spread-of-infec/
CDC (2016, Feb 22) Show Me the Science-When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer. http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html