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Here’s a critical question for the times we live in: which is better; hand sanitiser or soap?

Currently, there’s a big debate on this subject. At the start of the crisis, medical professionals touted the virtues of washing your hands with soap and warm water. After all, that’s what they do in clinical settings. 

But then as the crisis developed, hand sanitiser began appearing in shops and other public venues. And soon it was everywhere. People found that it was just so much more convenient than sinks and soap.

Now, we are all a little confused. Both hand sanitiser and handwashing seem like good options. So which is better? What does science say? Let’s take a look. 

How Soap Handwashing Works

Let’s first talk about why soap handwashing works. It seems like such a simple and low-tech intervention. And yet medics still rely on it to this day!

Fundamentally, handwashing is effective because of how soap and warm water combine to lift germs from the skin. It all comes down to the chemical properties of the soap. 

Soap molecules have one end that bonds with water and another that bonds with fats and oils. The “fat end” of the molecule sticks like glue to the fat-rich skin of germs, tagging onto them in the process. So when you rinse the hands in warm water, the water-loving end attaches to running water molecules, pulling the fat end and all those nasty germs with it. 

How Hand Sanitiser Works

Hand sanitiser works differently. Here the active ingredient – the thing that does the virus-killing – is alcohol, however, there are many alcohol free alternatives (check out our range of alcohol free hand sanitisers here).

The alcohol in the sanitiser coats the virus’s membrane and changes its chemical structure, causing it to rupture and disintegrate. When this happens, the virus’s RNA spills out and it can no longer infect people. 

However, quaternary Ammonium Compounds, or QACs, are proven to destroy 99.9% of bacteria and all Enveloped Viruses on contact – so alcohol free options are very much effective against killing viruses. 

Which Is More Effective? 

As we discussed in the introduction, both regular handwashing with soap and hand sanitiser is highly effective in killing germs. Each has the potential to kill viruses (and other bacteria) and prevent the spread of infection. But is there anything that marks one method out as being better than another?

Commentators will sometimes suggest one method is superior because it is easier to apply. However, both forms of handwashing require you to use them properly for them to be effective. 

For instance, for handwashing to work, you need to use soap and water under a running tap for between 20 and 30 seconds. In that time, you need to continuously rub your hands together so that germs can slough off. 

Using hand sanitiser also requires a certain technique. For it to work, you have to use enough to cover both the front and the back of your hands in a reasonably thick layer. You also need to create friction by rubbing your hands together and wait for the gel to dry before touching your face. Otherwise, it won’t work. 

But assuming that people are using the proper methods to wash their hands, how else can we judge which method is better?

Convenience

Hand sanitiser offers several advantages over traditional handwashing, one of them being convenience. Carrying a bottle of hand sanitiser with you is easy, whereas bringing a portable sink, soap and water is a lot harder. 

Sanitising your hands is also something you can do as you walk around. When you go to the store, you simply put a dollop on your hands at the front counter and rub it in for a few seconds as you walk towards the shelves. You don’t have to dry or rinse – it just evaporates naturally. 

Comfort

When it comes to handwashing, comfort matters. Researchers know that people will be unwilling to do it if they expect to experience pain. Both soaps and hand sanitisers, therefore, need to prevent skin drying. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, many medical commentators and journalists voiced concern about hand sanitiser drying people’s hands. However, manufacturers quickly responded by including moisturising additives to counteract the drying effect of the alcohol. Now, you can use them comfortably all day, just like moisture-rich soap. 

Cost

What about the cost? Well, here it is more difficult to make the case that either method is superior. 

Soap and water certainly seem inexpensive, but the cost of installing a sink is not. By contrast, hand sanitiser seems more costly at first blush. But it is surprisingly cost-effective per hand-wash, and the price comes down when you buy in bulk.  

Wrapping Up

So, in summary, both hand sanitiser and soap hand washing are effective ways to prevent the spread of infection. But when it comes to sheer convenience, hand sanitiser is the clear winner. 

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