Hand Sanitizer vs. Hand Washing: Which Should You Be Doing?

Let’s face it, since the pandemic began, we all seem to be on information overload. And lately there’s one question that seems to be popping up with increasing frequency: Should we wash our hands or use hand sanitizer?

As the safety coordinator for FCM, I always seem to be knee deep in illness pamphlets and articles. It’s my job to share information with my team that keeps them safe, whether in the shop, at a client’s business, at home, or beyond. So I did a little digging into this topic for my recent safety meeting.

Turns out, despite the high demand for it, hand sanitizer isn’t some magic wonder product that stops the coronavirus in its tracks, nor does it kill all other bacteria and viruses we might encounter. According to UCI Health in Orange County, Calif., this is even true of hand sanitizers that are 60 percent alcohol! And did you know that some bacteria has even begun to show a tolerance for ethyl alcohol?

Now our team works with metal all day long. They sometimes get really dirty, depending on which project they’re working on. At other times, we may deal with toxic chemicals that are challenging to work with on a good day. In these types of environments, hand sanitizers just don’t stand up to harmful chemicals or grease and can never fully get you clean.

Also, although you likely don’t have kids at the job site, parents need to be aware of the danger hand sanitizers pose for their little ones. Poison control centers received nearly 85,000 calls about children who ingested hand sanitizer between 2011 and 2015, and that was before we were all lathering up with it due to COVID-19. So by all means, please make sure children are supervised if they use these products.

So what’s the solution? That’s right, wash your hands, folks. Whether you’ve encountered someone who isn’t wearing their mask, get dirty or come in contact with hazardous chemicals, take 20 seconds to wash your hands with soap and running water. And remember, this isn’t a one-and-done activity. Wash your hands regularly throughout the day to maintain good hygiene and to protect yourself and your colleagues, friends, and family.

Why is handwashing so effective? Simply, soap molecules can break down and destroy the surface membranes of some bacteria and viruses, including the novel coronavirus. And the friction created when washing your hands gets rid of dirt, grease, and other microbes. For more information, watch the video below or visit the CDC.gov.

(Video courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, YouTube)

Oh, and one other thing, with all the hand washing you’re doing, you may find that your hands are getting red, chapped, and dry. That’s why the American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping your skin hydrated. The best way is to apply a hand cream or ointment immediately after washing your hands. And if you must use hand sanitizer, apply hand cream right after the sanitizer dries. The best ones to use contain mineral oil or petrolatum, come in a tube vs. a bottle, and are fragrance and dye free.

Stay safe out there!