To Sanitize or Not to Sanitize

I’m Dr. Michael Olpin. Let me help you get rid of your stress … for good.

Article Highlights

  • The longer it has been since someone has washed their hands, the less effective a hand sanitizer will be
  • The best way to remove germs from your hands
  • If you choose to use hand sanitzer, use one with at least 60% alcohol

Hand sanitizers were originally designed to help those in hospitals and health care settings who work in relatively clean places and frequently wash their hands.

Sanitizers do not work well on dirty hands.

In fact, the longer it has been since someone has washed their hands, the less effective a hand sanitizer is likely to be.


Sanitizer vs Washing Hands

Although they are generally very effective at killing bacteria, and preventing the spread of bacterial and viral- based diseases like the flu, they do not remove dirt or feces from the hands. So using a sanitizer instead of washing your hands after going to the bathroom, well that’s just gross.

This is especially important to consider in places like day cares and schools, where dirt and remnants of feces can be common among the little inhabitants that play there. Day care workers should teach youngsters to correctly wash their hands, especially after using the bathroom, as this is a skill that needs to become a lifelong habit. Then sanitizers can also be used during the day as a helpful aid in keeping other germs from spreading.

The same principle rings true in the kitchen as alcohol, used in most sanitizers does not work as well against the norovirus also called E.coli. So washing hands correctly before preparing and eating food is another must.

Most respectable health professionals will tell you that hand washing with ordinary soap and water is the most effective way to remove germs from your hands. But in order to be effective, it must be done correctly.

Lathering up, not just spreading the soap around, for a full 20 seconds is best. That is about how long it takes most people to sing the ABC song, (although singing that in a public restroom might cause you to speed it up a bit). Be sure to get between the fingers and as far as you can under the nails. Make it a family law to wash hands first thing whenever anyone comes home from anywhere.

Antibacterial Soaps

Ironically, antibacterial soaps are probably the worst thing you can use to kill germs. Again, the range of effectiveness of these products varies greatly and many do not kill all of the bacteria on the hands. This may lead to bad bacteria building up and developing a resistance.

So do not rely on the soap to kill all the germs, instead concentrate on getting them to release from your skin and flow down the drain. After all, we don’t have to kill everything to prevent ourselves from becoming sick. We just need to keep the little critters off of our hands and out of our bodies.

Now that everyone is washing their hands again, it can be helpful to use a sanitizer in places where germs spread easily like offices, stores, cars and buses, etc. Hand sanitizers have shown to be effective in reducing gastrointestinal illness in homes, curbing absentee rates in elementary schools, and in reducing illness in university dormitories.

What Kind of Hand Sanitizer to Use

The CDC and the FDA recommend that alcohol based sanitizers are at least 60 to 95 percent ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol) or isopropanol to be the greatest at germicidal efficacy, (killing germs). Alcohol is so good at killing germs that it is not very likely they will build up a resistance to it. If you can’t tolerate alcohol, there are some non-alcohol sanitizers out there, but you will have to do some research to check their effectiveness.

Some products with less than 60% alcohol may claim to kill 99.9% of germs, but those studies are usually done on surfaces like countertops in a lab, not on real people’s hands. Studies reported by the FDA have found that some of these products are not as effective in real-life situations those containing at least 60% alcohol. Unfortunately, these are likely to be found in cheaper markets, making lower income individuals at higher risk getting less effective sanitizers.

With all of this in mind, you still need completely cover the hands with the sanitizer and rub for at least 15 seconds for the alcohol to do its job completely, killing both good and bad bacteria. But don’t worry, most of the time, there is enough good bacteria on the lower levels of the skin or upper arm that survive, re-colonize, spread, and continue helping the human species in the ways that we need them to.

For more information, you can check out the CDC’s website at or the following links.


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