People all across the world are flocking to stores in search of hand sanitizer. But where hundreds of bottles once sat, there are empty shelves.
Despite this, some people say that washing your hands is a much more effective way to keep germs at bay, anyway. But is this true? Is hand-washing better than sanitizer, anyway? We asked germ experts to set the record straight.
Hand sanitizers are effective—to a degree.
Hand sanitizers can't kill all germs, but they are effective at nullifying microbes, viruses, and bacteria—as long as they have upwards of 60 percent alcohol, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, an internist in New York City.
But hand sanitizers need to be used properly.
The other big caveat? Hand sanitizer has to be used properly to be effective, says Dr. Melinda Ring, executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University.
To do so, apply the product to the palm of one hand, using the label-recommended amount, and rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry. "The time required for complete drying, ideally, is 30 seconds or less, but in some cases it can take over 100 seconds to dry," says Ring.
And if you touch something again? You need to reapply sanitizer or wash your hands—hand sanitizer does not act as a shield, proactively killing germs.
There are other issues with hand sanitizers, too...
Hand sanitizers don't work as well when your hands are visibly dirty, says Ring. And they should always be kept out of reach of young children. "Hand sanitizers are not meant for oral intake and can lead to alcohol intoxication."
Experts say hand-washing is better.
"According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), soap and water is preferable to sanitizing gel, because the gel may not be as effective as soap in terms of eliminating all types of germs, including some viruses," says Ring.
As long as you wash your hands properly...
For maximum effectiveness, you need to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds, says Sonpal.
The basic steps:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
- Rub your hands together to create a lather. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails where germs often get trapped.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, more if your hands are particularly dirty. You can pick a song of your choosing, like "Happy Birthday," if that's helpful, or "I Will Survive." Stuck? Sick of birthdays? This lyric meme generator will help.
- Rinse under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry. (Don't skip this step: Wet hands are more susceptible to acquiring new germs from surfaces, says Ring.)
You don't need special soap.
Antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soap and water for removing disease-causing germs, according to the CDC. However, regular soap tends to be less expensive than antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers.
What if there's no sink in sight?
This is where hand sanitizers come in. "Hand sanitizers between 60 and 95 percent alcohol are adequate substitutes when outside the home or when a sink and soap are not present," says Sonpal.
And if sanitizer is all sold out, you can DIY it.
"Homemade sanitizer can be an option, as long as the DIY-ers ensure that the ingredients are safe and meet the guidelines for reaching at least 60 percent alcohol content," says Ring. Read: Don't just pour vodka on your hands.
Mix 2/3 cup of 99 percent isopropyl alcohol (aka rubbing alcohol) or ethanol (aka 90 to 95 percent grain alcohol) with 1/3 cup of aloe vera, then add about 10 drops of essential oils with antimicrobial properties, including tea tree, cinnamon leaf, eucalyptus, and rosemary.
If you simply don't have anything available...
Avoid touching your face until you are able to purchase sanitizer or use a sink, says Sonpal. "If you are nervous about possibly having come into contact with a virus, take inventory of the things you touched on your way to a sink so you can wipe those down later. For example, if you are driving home to wash your hands, make sure after you wash your hands, you wipe your steering wheel and gear shift with a disinfectant.
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