Flu Prevention: Hand Sanitizer vs. Hand Soap

In the midst of one of the worst flu epidemics in over a decade, many of us are still confused about the difference between hand sanitizers and hand soap. We know they serve as our first line of defense against disease, but which one works best?

Dr. Richard Besser, Chief Medical Editor for ABC News, along with six graduate students decided to put this question to the test in the University of Maryland’s Food Safety Lab.

To test to effectiveness of both hand sanitizer and hand soap, researchers coated their hands with a liquid form of E. coli bacteria (a harmless strain). Then they proceeded to conduct four different trials with the following:

In between each trial, researchers pressed their hands onto petri dishes and then placed the dishes in an incubator to allow the bacteria to grow for two days.

So what did researchers find?

Non-Alcohol vs. Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer

When comparing non-alcohol and alcohol-based hand sanitizers side-by-side, it was clear that alcohol-based sanitizers were dramatically more effective than their neutral counterparts.

Alcohol-based sanitizers work by stripping away the outer layer of oil on the skin – breaking up and killing bacterial proteins. Unfortunately, many individuals do not tolerate alcohol-based products very well and end up with irritated skin.

Regular vs. Antibacterial Hand Soap

According to the results, both regular and antibacterial hand soap were equally effective – and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says they work about the same when it comes to disease prevention.

Hand Sanitizer vs. Hand Soap

Though hand sanitizer might seem like a quick alternative to getting your hands wet, regular old hand washing is still the best way to prevent illnesses like the flu. However – it’s important to note that how you use hand soap (and hand sanitizer) is crucial to its overall effectiveness.

Hand Soap and Hand Sanitizer Best Practices

Hand washing statistics have shown that theaverage person only spend a measly five seconds lathering up at the sink. Study researchers looked at this factor and found that after five seconds of hand washing, bacteria rates were virtually the same before and after.

If you really want to stave off illness, you need to wash your hands for a full 20 seconds (the equivalent of singing “Happy Birthday” twice).

Washing with hand soap is always your best option, but when you’re in a pinch, hand sanitizers are better than nothing. Just make sure you choose a sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol-based and you allow it to dry for at least 15 seconds before resuming normal activities.