Jan. 26, 2020—In the midst of this year’s flu season, you want to keep your hands as germ-free as possible. But if you regularly reach for hand sanitizer, it pays to know a few key facts, starting with this one: Washing your hands with soap and running water for 20 seconds is typically the best way to clean your hands.
If you don’t have access to soap and water, a hand sanitizer can be a good alternative. Even so, you have to use the right product—in the right way—to get the most out of it. Here are some good-to-know tips:
1. Do use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It should contain at least 60% alcohol. Non-alcohol-based sanitizers may merely keep germs from multiplying—instead of killing them outright. They may also contribute to antibiotic resistance.
Also, be aware: Even an alcohol-based sanitizer doesn’t eliminate all types of germs. Washing with soap and water is better at removing norovirus, the leading cause of foodborne illness; some parasites; and Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea.
2. Do check for dirt. If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, hand sanitizers may not work well. Stick to tried-and-true handwashing, if possible.
3. Don’t rely on hand sanitizers to remove harmful chemicals. It’s unlikely that sanitizers can remove or inactivate chemicals like pesticides and heavy metals. If you’ve come in contact with them, wash your hands carefully with soap and water—or as directed by a poison control center.
4. Do apply it correctly. Use enough sanitizer to cover all the surfaces of your hands and fingers. Then rub your hands together until they feel dry—that should take about 20 seconds. Don’t rush. Hand sanitizers may not be as effective if you rinse or wipe them off before your hands are dry.
5. Do be careful around kids. Keep hand sanitizers out of the reach of young children, who might mistake them for food or candy. Last year alone, U.S. poison control centers received more than 17,000 calls about hand sanitizer exposure in kids 12 and younger. A child who swallows even a small amount of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer could be at risk for alcohol poisoning, which can be deadly in severe cases.
Handwashing the right way
There’s handwashing and then there’s handwashing. To be effective, these five steps are a must.