Is Hand Sanitizer Better Than Soap?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2018
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Whether or not using a hand sanitizer instead of regular soap is better could depend on the definition of "better." An alcohol-based hand sanitizer does kill more bacteria in a shorter time than most hand soaps, but true effectiveness is not always measured by sheer volume of dead bacteria. There are other contaminants to consider, and a sanitizer may not address all of them as well as soap and water can. Using a hand sanitizer is definitely better than using nothing at all, but a good hand soap can be virtually as effective under the right conditions.

There is one kind of soap, ironically, which is not generally considered to be as effective: antibacterial soap. These products use chemicals, often triclosan, to kill bacteria on the skin's surface. At first this may sound like a good thing, but triclosan needs a significant amount of time to become effective, not the usual 30 seconds most people spend during the handwashing process. A liquid hand sanitizer, on the other hand, remains in contact with the skin long enough to allow the alcohol or other sanitizing agents to finish the job of killing off harmful bacteria.


Regular soap actually works in two different ways to remove surface dirt, bacteria, and other contaminants. A fatty ingredient bonds to the contaminants and skin oils, while a detergent breaks the surface tension and allows water to wash away the suspended particles. This can have a drying effect on the skin, and many beneficial bacteria are also washed away in the process. A liquid hand sanitizer, on the other hand, chemically destroys bacteria without washing away the skin's natural oily layer. With most products, no rinsing is required.

There is also the consideration of perfumes and deodorants present in bath soaps. While most designed for handwashing are lightly scented or unscented, some may leave behind a strongly residue. This could transfer to utensils, food, and beverages through normal handling. Almost all hand sanitizer brands are unscented, although they still may have some kind of scent. Still, sanitizers should not be able to transfer an unpleasant taste to food or drink. It should be given enough time to dry thoroughly, however.


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Post 25

@anon134870 - If you're doing a science fair project, you'll just have to figure that out for yourself. If the project isn't on that but needs you to decide which is best for some other reason, make a decision on what you think is the best and add in the write-up that this isn't a fact, it was only based on the best research you could do and your results might be slightly skewed (if they will be) because of that decision.

That's the way a real scientific investigation is conducted. Sometimes you have to make assumptions about things which haven't been proved in order to do an experiment. This is especially true in cases like this, where there's no real answer. For some people soap will be better, for others hand sanitizer will be better. It depends what you want it for.

Post 24

@anon64309 - I think that hand sanitizer gets promoted for various industries because it's so quick and easy to use. It's much easier to rub sanitizer over your hands than it is to wash your hands properly.

That's the problem with a lot of tests that compare the two methods. Hand washing is generally going to be effective enough for most people. But it requires you to really thoroughly wash your hands, between the fingers and around the nails and everything. Most people just do a couple of rubs between their palms and then rinse, which isn't thorough enough to really compare them. Doctors, for example, are told to scrub their hands for several minutes before they can operate. Hand sanitizer

will be sticking on your hands so it will get rid of most of the bacteria over time regardless of whether you completely douse your hands in it or not. So it's more suitable for the food industry where you can't trust your employees to stick to washing their hands that thoroughly.
Post 23

@anon58216 - Since most of the diseases we group together under "the common cold" are made from viruses there's no way he's doing anything except hurting himself. There's plenty of good bacteria in the body and inhaling antibacterial hand sanitizer could potentially harm them.

I don't think he could get high off it, but I'm not sure about that. I do know that if it worked the way he says it does people would have figured that out a long time ago.

Post 20

I'm doing a science fair project on this. Which one is actually the best?

Post 19

I am looking for soap and water packets. I found them once and never found them again. My naturopath tells me that the sanitizers against bacteria work OK, however most people are transmitting viruses and consequently wiping the virus all over their hands when using the sanitizers. Let me know if you can find small soap towelettes.

Post 13

If antibacterial soap shows no significant difference in cleansing the hands over regular soap, then why is it being promoted especially in food industry as the soap of choice?

Post 12

I disagree with this because i did the same experiment and i concluded that hand soap works significantly better then hand sanitizer. Not just regular bar soap but liquid soap, hand sanitizers also strips a thin layer of your skin. There i stand with my opinion that hand soap works better than hand sanitizer.

Post 11

A co-worker of mine likes to sniff hand sanitizer at work. He claims that it is effective in "killing germs in the lungs and potential cold germs". I think he just is getting high. I cannot find anything concerning the effects of inhaling this stuff. Does anyone know any information about this?

Post 8

My daughter just did this experiment in school and got the opposite result: hand sanitizer killed about 99.9 percent germs while soap killed about 85 percent. These tests are not very scientific, you know.

Post 7

well im allergic to cake, so what do i use!

Post 6

It's really sad that you are arguing about soap! That's sad!

Post 5

it looks to me that this study was paid for by hand sanitizer companys...a little biased are we?

Post 3

anon4864: how did you prove that hand soap gets rid of bacteria better than hand sanitizer?

Post 1

This is not entirely true. I did an experiment on the effects of using hand sanitizer versus the effects of using hand soap. Using hand soap does get rid of the bacteria on the surface of your hands better than hand sanitizer. And there is a possibility of the hand sanitizer leaving an unpleasant taste if you don't let the sanitizer dry before handling food.

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