Hand Sanitizer vs. Handwashing

Handwashing or Hand Sanitizer: Which Is Better and Why?

Hand sanitizing products come in various forms ranging from gels to wipes — but the question prevails as to whether they work as effectively as soap and water. While sanitizer undoubtedly plays a role in removing germs, it should never be used to replace traditional hand washing technique. Rather, hand sanitizer should only be used in tandem with handwashing to ensure proper hygiene – or when soap and water are unavailable.

What Is the Difference Between Handwashing and Hand Sanitizing?

While both handwashing and hand sanitizing are good hygiene practices, each has its own respective time and place. Handwashing, for instance, is a great way to remove dirt and grease, as well as pesticides and heavy metals; hand sanitizing, on the other hand, may not be as effective for those particular purposes. According to the CDC, “many studies show that hand sanitizers work well in clinical settings like hospitals, where hands come into contact with germs but generally are not heavily soiled or greasy.” Rather, hand sanitizers work more effectively to reduce the number of microbes on your hands, but only when they are not physically dirty. In fact, the same principle holds true for surfaces like countertops or tables; if they are visibly dirty or soiled, they need to be cleaned before they can be effectively sanitized or disinfected. Studies have shown that hand wipes are more effective than gels at removing dirt and germs from hands.


The effectiveness of handwashing is seen in the physical removal of debris, germs, bacteria, and viruses. Rubbing your hands together with soap and water creates friction that dislodges the debris and germs on your skin, making it more effective at removing them than hand sanitizer. Due to the limitations of hand sanitizer, handwashing is critical.

For people who work in the foodservice industry, the importance of maintaining hygiene cannot be stressed enough — it is a matter of public safety and legal compliance. Regularly preparing raw meat exposes food workers’ hands to various germs and bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses to those they serve. Closely abiding by proper handwashing techniques ensures not only the customers’ health and safety, but also a business’s stability. Foodborne illness outbreaks can cost an operator millions and even lead to shutting down.

Soaps, Detergents, Surfactants

Soaps and detergents are both types of surfactants, a surface-active agent. The surfactant agent present in both of these cleaners features a hydrophilic head and hydrophobic tail. This molecular chain, in other words, features one end that is attracted to water and one end that repels water. In short, these opposing forces go to work when you rub your hands together, lifting the debris and germs off of your hands and cleaning them in the process.

The difference between soaps and detergents lies in their ingredients and how they are made. Soaps, on the one hand, are made by mixing fats and oils with a base; while detergents, on the other hand, are made by combining petroleum products and additional synthetic and artificial fragrances. In other words, soaps are natural while detergents are synthetic.

Many commercial applications use detergent rather than soap. The chemical elements behind detergents more effectively remove heavy-duty grime and grease. In addition to that, they do not react as unfavorably as soaps do when coming into contact with hard water and are not as finicky in varying water temperatures.

Proper Hand Washing

According to the CDC, the following are the best handwashing techniques to ensure cleanliness:

  • Wet your hands — Whether you use cold or warm water is up to you, but be sure to wet your hands with clean water prior to applying soap.
  • Lather the soap in your hands — Begin by rubbing the soap so it covers both of your hands entirely.
  • Scrub all surfaces — Make sure to get every corner of your hand, including palms, backs, between the fingers, and underneath the nails.
  • Rinse — Using clean water again, rinse all of the soap out of your hands by rubbing them together.
  • Dry — Lastly, use a clean towel or air to dry them.

When You Should Wash Your Hands

Since hand washing does a better overall job at removing dirt, grease, and germs from your hands than hand sanitizing does, the FDA Food Code mandates handwashing in the following situations:

  • When entering a food preparation area;
  • Before putting on clean, single-use gloves for working with food and between glove changes;
  • Before engaging in food preparation;
  • Before handling clean equipment and serving utensils;
  • When changing tasks and switching between handling raw foods and working with RTE foods;
  • After handling soiled dishes, equipment, or utensils;
  • After touching bare human body parts, for example, parts other than clean hands and clean, exposed portions of arms;
  • After using the toilet;
  • After coughing, sneezing, blowing the nose, using tobacco, eating, or drinking; and
  • After caring for or handling services animals or aquatic animals such as molluscan shellfish or crustacea in display tanks.

Hand Sanitizing

Hand sanitizing is a helpful way to remove germs when soap and water are not readily available. However, it is important to take note that hand sanitizer does not kill everything. If anything, hand sanitizer should always be used in tandem with hand washing, as often as possible.

Alcohol and Chemical Content

The combination of ingredients in hand sanitizer is what makes it effective. In most cases, you’ll find a combination of alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol, and/or benzalkonium chloride. These active ingredients are used as an antiseptic and work well to remove most germs.

Proper Hand Sanitizing

For the most effective results, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol and follow these instructions:

  • Apply — If you’re using a gel, use enough sanitizer to cover the entirety of your hands. If you’re using a wipe, remove it from the container or open the wrapper.
  • Rub — Next, rub your hands together for about 20 seconds. When your hands begin to feel dry, you have rubbed in all of the sanitizer. If you’re using a wipe, be sure to wipe your hands for at least 15 seconds.
  • Leave it — Be careful not to remove hand sanitizer from your hands before it has fully dried. Do not wash or rub it off on your clothes.

Download this resource for full instructions on how to sanitize hands using a wipe.

When Should You Sanitize Your Hands?

Although washing your hands may take precedence, using either hand sanitizer or hand sanitizing wipes is your next best bet if soap and water are not nearby. Using sanitizer is beneficial and convenient in the following situations:

  • When preparing foods outdoors or where soap and water may not be readily available
  • Before or after visiting someone in a hospital or nursing home — Hand sanitizer is found in many hospitals and nursing homes for workers, patients, and guests.
  • In a classroom setting — Classrooms also tend to have hand sanitizer as it is a convenient way to dispel the spread of germs.
  • After using your phone — The amount of bacteria on phones is easy to dismiss, but with as often as we use technology it is almost a given that they would be highly contaminated. While hand sanitizer will help clean your hands in this situation, you should also wipe down your phone as well.
  • If soap and water are not readily available — In total, hand sanitizer is an excellent way to clean your hands when there is no soap and water nearby.
  • As an extra precaution after hand washing – or when returning to the kitchen following handwashing in the restroom

Keeping your hands clean is one of the hallmarks of good hygiene. Unfortunately, soap and water aren’t always readily available, so having reliable alternatives becomes both necessary and practical. Make sure that you invest in an effective hand sanitizer as an extra layer of protection.