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When Should You Use Hand Sanitizer? A Guide for Best Practices

As you live your daily life, you continually come in contact with harmful germs and bacteria. Washing your hands and using hand sanitizer are effective ways of reducing the risk of infection. But when should you wash your hands, and when should you use hand sanitizer?

This article discusses the differences between handwashing and hand sanitizing. It also explains how hand sanitizer works, when and how often to hand sanitize, and why you should use hand sanitizer in conjunction with personal protective equipment.

When to use hand sanitizer between handwashings

Along with stopping the spread of common cold and flu viruses, using hand sanitizer and frequent handwashing help stop the spread of COVID-19. Still, 95 percent of people don’t wash their hands properly, and many do not understand when to wash their hands and when to use hand sanitizer.

Washing hands correctly

The most common mistake people make when washing their hands is that they do not wash long enough. For effective handwashing, always rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds. You must also use soap and running water; standing water contains contaminants, and using water alone will not clean your hands.

Antimicrobial soaps are a great option for washing and disinfecting hands. Unlike antibacterial soap, antimicrobial soap also fights fungi and viruses, not just bacteria. It also prevents the growth of mold and mildew, which can harbor bacteria and viruses.

Whichever soap you choose, follow these steps for proper handwashing:

  • Wet hands with running water.
  • Add soap.
  • Rub hands together for at least 20 seconds.
  • Ensure soap and water reach wrists, fingers, thumbs, between fingers, and under fingernails.
  • Place hands under running water and rinse well; this will release dirt and germs from your skin.
  • Dry hands thoroughly with a clean towel or paper towel. Do not skip this step because germs transfer more easily to and from wet skin.

Understanding handwashing vs. hand sanitizing

Hand sanitizer is not a substitute for handwashing; only use it as a backup to washing with soap and water. But, if handwashing stations are unavailable, hand sanitizer is a good alternative for hindering the spread of germs and viruses.

Although hand sanitizer kills germs, it does not clean your hands. The friction you create by scrubbing your hands with soap and water is what disrupts the structure of bacteria and viruses and releases germs from your skin. Plus, washing with soap and water is more effective if your hands are visibly dirty or if you come in contact with harmful chemicals.

Also, while soap and water work by removing all types of germs, hand sanitizer works by killing some types of germs. For example, hand sanitizer is less effective at killing other germs such as Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and C-difficile. Unlike water and most soaps, hand sanitizer is also flammable and is poisonous if ingested.

The CDC recommends washing hands over using hand sanitizer in any of the following instances:

  • After using the restroom
  • After changing diapers
  • Before and after eating or preparing food
  • After treating a cut or wound
  • After touching animals
  • After touching trash
  • After coughing or sneezing
  • Before and after visiting a hospital or doctor’s office

In addition to the above, consider these other recommendations for when to wash your hands instead of using hand sanitizer.

Knowing when to use hand sanitizer

Switching between washing hands and using hand sanitizer works well for those who need to clean hands frequently, such as health-care workers. But when handwashing is not possible, use hand sanitizer as thoroughly as you would use soap and water. Also, after applying hand sanitizer, do not wipe it off; wait until it completely dries before you touch anything.

Using hand sanitizer before putting on personal protective equipment (PPE)

Simply wearing PPE is not always enough to protect yourself and others from germs and contaminants. Using hand sanitizer in conjunction with PPE is always best practice, even if you are a health-care worker or first responder using an N95 respirator.

If you put on PPE with hands that have not been properly sanitized, you could contaminate the PPE and render it less effective. Additionally, germs may directly enter your nose and mouth. And if your hands are not clean before touching a glove, any germs on your hands will easily transfer to the outside of it.

Similarly, PPE becomes contaminated during use, so always sanitize hands after removing any PPE. A glove can spread germs just as easily as dirty hands. Putting on and removing a glove without transferring contaminants is difficult, so after removing one, always wash or sanitize your hands.

How often to apply hand sanitizer during the day

More often is not necessarily better when it comes to using hand sanitizer. Overusing it can have several negative or harmful effects. Understanding these effects can help explain why you need to minimize the frequency of use.

Frequency of use and the effects of using too much

Overuse of hand sanitizer can lead to bacterial resistance, which causes sanitizers to lose effectiveness. On top of that, excessive use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer rids the skin of much-needed natural oils, which can lead to dry hands and skin irritation. This can cause skin to crack, which makes it easier for harmful bacteria to enter your body.

In addition, overusing hand sanitizer can kill the good bacteria you have in your skin that helps keep you healthy. Overuse can also leave a residue that can trap germs. If you notice a film on your hands, wash them with soap and water.

Use sanitizer only when necessary and use it sparingly. You don’t need to constantly apply hand sanitizer when you are out. And after a short trip, it can be OK to wait until you get home to do a thorough handwashing.

Dangers of antibiotic resistance

Resistance to antibiotics is one of the biggest threats to global health. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria become resistant to treatments designed to kill them. Over time, bacteria can develop ways of fighting and killing the active ingredients in medicants.

Too frequent use of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, and the more people get sick, the more they have to use antibiotics. If antibiotics lose their effectiveness, it puts everyone at risk for illness or infectious disease that doctors cannot yet treat.

How much hand sanitizer to use for good hand hygiene

The most effective way to protect ourselves from germs and prevent infections is to practice good hand hygiene. Every person can take this simple step to make a positive impact on personal and public health.

Why good hand hygiene matters

Without even realizing it, people touch contaminated surfaces and then habitually touch their faces, eyes, noses, and mouths. Without proper hand hygiene, germs would spread uncontrollably. By practicing good hand hygiene, you can help keep yourself and others safe and healthy.

Following good hand hygiene practices helps prevent the spread of infectious disease, reduces respiratory illnesses, and minimizes absenteeism at work and school. It supports a culture of safety because cleaning your hands affects more than your own health; it impacts everyone around you.

How much hand sanitizer to use

The amount of hand sanitizer you should use depends on your level of activity. As a standard, apply about three milliliters to the palm of your hand and rub thoroughly. One squirt of hand sanitizer equals approximately two milliliters, so aim for about one and a half squirts. 

Having an adequate supply of hand sanitizer available ensures you will never run out. You can calculate how much you and your family need to always be prepared.

What the CDC recommends for hand sanitation

Alcohol is the active ingredient in most hand sanitizers. The CDC recommends using alcohol-based hand sanitizer or alcohol-based hand rub that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. You can find the type and amount of alcohol on hand sanitizer labels.

The CDC also recommends that you avoid homemade hand sanitizer and that you use hand sanitizer only when soap and water are unavailable. No hand sanitizer can kill 100 percent of germs, so using it should not replace washing with soap and water, which is always more effective.

How hand sanitizers help prevent illness and infection

According to the CDC, washing your hands is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of germs. Workplace hygiene recommendations always prioritize regular handwashing as a means of significantly reducing the risk of infections from a bacterium or virus, including coronavirus.

How alcohol-based hand sanitizers work

So how exactly does hand sanitizer prevent illness and infection? The isopropyl or ethanol in alcohol-based hand sanitizers acts on viruses and bacteria by damaging their protective layers, which decreases cell integrity. It can also disrupt the pattern of DNA, making it impossible for germs to reproduce.

But if alcohol is so effective at killing germs, why not use hand sanitizers with alcohol levels above 60–70 percent? The answer is that alcohol levels above this range will evaporate before penetrating the cell of bacteria and viruses. This is why manufacturers add water to hand sanitizer; it slows evaporation, allowing the alcohol in the sanitizer to remain on the skin longer.

What you should look for on a hand sanitizer label

When choosing alcohol-based hand sanitizer products, check the label to ensure they contain 60–70 percent alcohol and use ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, or ethyl alcohol. Never use any sanitizer that contains methanol, which is extremely toxic.

You can also use sanitizers labeled as containing “benzalkonium chloride.” These are an alternative to alcohol-based sanitizers, but they might be less effective in some cases. 

Avoid hand sanitizer if the label does not specify whether the FDA has tested or approved it. Check FDA recall lists to avoid using toxic or ineffective hand sanitizers, including those that contain triclosan. Also avoid using hand sanitizers with a scent or added color: these can be dangerous for young children who think they can drink them.

Hand sanitizer: a powerful companion to handwashing

By practicing good hand hygiene, including using hand sanitizer, you significantly reduce the risk of spreading germs and infections.

Now you can better answer the question, “When should you use hand sanitizer?” And when used at the right times and with the right frequency, hand sanitizer can be a powerful companion to handwashing.

View the selection of hand sanitizers and dispensers Spruce Industries has to offer.

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