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It’s Flu Season. Does Hand Sanitizer Actually Help?

Hand sanitizer isn’t all that good at sanitizing hands. Washing with soap and water, however, is the single most effective way to prevent disease.

Washing my hands is a drag. It requires physical effort and accessories like towels. The trial is greater still when it comes to washing my children’s hands. And because my children are lazier than I am and far less concerned about proper hygiene, it’s so much easier to pump out some hand sanitizer into their little palms and call it a day. Unfortunately, washing your hands with soap and water is the single most effective way to prevent disease, especially during flu season. Hand sanitizer, however, isn’t all that good at sanitizing hands—especially when it has alcohol content below 60 percent.

“Many studies have found that sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60–95% are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly… Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers.”

Even if you manage to get your hands on some hospital-grade hand sanitizer, the high alcohol content isn’t enough to guarantee protection during flu season. Because most people do not use hand sanitizer appropriately. Studies have shown that hand sanitizers work best when applied to the entire hand, not just the palm. And they work best in clinical settings, where the hands are basically clean but may have come in contact with dangerous pathogens. Soiled hands, commonly associated with kids or parenting, simply do not mix with hand sanitizer.

“Hands may become very greasy or soiled in community settings, such as after people handle food, play sports, work in the garden, or go camping or fishing,” according to the CDC. “When hands are heavily soiled or greasy, hand sanitizers may not work well.”

Let’s say you manage to procure and apply 95 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer to your otherwise clean hands. Even then, it might not work. Hand sanitizer is less effective than hand washing when it comes to killing specific pathogens, such as Clostridium difficile, and likely cannot remove or inactivate harmful chemicals. Indeed, studies have shown that people who exclusively use hand sanitizer, instead of soap and water, have higher levels of pesticides in their bodies.

At the end of the day, hand sanitizer is a good way to protect yourself and your family from disease when you’re dealing with clean hands, or unable to get to the sink. But at home, with soiled hands, soap and water is the safest bet—thrashing children notwithstanding.