Which is better protection from germs – soap and water or hand sanitizer?

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FEATURE — Germs are everywhere — including those that can make you really sick. In our attempts to protect ourselves from infectious disease, it can be difficult to know how well the various products claiming to kill bacteria really work.

Does hand sanitizer have the advantage in preventing illness or is soap and water still the best bet? The following six questions will hopefully guide you to making the best decisions for your health.

1. Do hand sanitizers work?

To prevent cold and flu, absolutely. They also prevent the spread of most types of infectious bacteria as well. Be aware, though, that alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not kill all pathogenic organisms. Salmonella, E. coli, MRSA and rotoviruses are not killed. So it is very helpful but not perfect.

2. How long do cold and flu viruses survive if they are on your hands?

About 15 minutes. However, they can survive on hard surfaces for 24 hours, however.

3. Does soap and water kill bacteria and viruses?

No. But this combination is very helpful – even more so than sanitizers. Soap removes the grease layer that is on our skin where pathogenic organisms hang out waiting to get into your nose or mouth. Removing that layer removes the pathogens. It doesn’t kill them, per se, but if you are somewhere where you are worried about getting a gastrointestinal bug, soap and water is a much better option.

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Soap and water is also your best option if you are exposed to an obviously sick person. Problem is, hand-washing is not always feasible to do. Just be aware that it has definite advantages. And if you are sick, particularly with a gastrointestinal bug, it is much better to use soap and water to keep from passing it to close contacts.

4. Are antibacterial soaps better?

No. They offer nothing more than regular soaps in terms of protection.

5. Are some sanitizers better than others?

Any sanitizer that is over 60 percent alcohol content is considered optimal.

6. Any other suggestions?

Just one — don’t touch your face, especially the mouth, eyes and nose, during cold and flu season. Viruses are primarily passed this way. You can just inhale droplets from the air from a close by cough or sneeze, but it is far more common to transmit viruses via touching your face. Or rubbing your eyes. Or picking your nose.


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