Should you use hand sanitiser or soap? Let’s settle the debate

It’s universally agreed that washing your hands is the best way to keep nasty germs at bay. But which method is more effective – hand soap or hand sanitiser? And then what’s the deal with liquid soap and bar soap – is one better than the other?

If you’ve been asking yourself these questions, you’ve come to the right place. Here we explore which method is guaranteed to protect your health.


What does hand sanitiser do and when is it the best option?

The main ingredient in hand sanitiser gel is alcohol, which is used to eliminate the germs that linger on your hands. This alcohol also fights viruses by penetrating the virus’s outer fat membrane and essentially killing it. So there’s no denying that hand sanitiser works – to an extent.

Hand sanitiser is the most convenient option when you need to sterilise your hands on the go after touching something in a public place. Viruses such as COVID-19 spread when people sneeze or cough infected droplets onto a surface. When someone else comes along and touches that surface, they soon touch their face, exposing themselves to the virus. Touching your face is a compulsion that you can’t always stop, even when you think about it – on average, humans touch their face once every two to five minutes! You can see why applying hand sanitiser immediately after you touch something reduces your chances of getting sick.

However, hand sanitiser isn’t a cleaning agent, meaning it can’t remove dirt or grime on its own like soap and water can. And while it’s proven that it works on viruses such as COVID-19, it also can’t kill all germs – for example, it isn’t effective against norovirus, the most common cause of gastro. That’s why you should properly wash your hands as soon as you can when you get home.

You might have noticed that there are a lot of companies producing hand sanitiser right now in an effort to curb COVID-19 – for example, gin distilleries and wineries have started manufacturing sanitiser with the same equipment they use to produce their alcohol products. And you probably even have friends or relatives who have started producing their own hand sanitiser at home. With so many hand sanitisers available, it can be hard to know if all are safe, and which one is right for you. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to tell. All health officials agree that hand sanitiser must contain between 60% and 95% alcohol to be effective (it will be labelled as either “ethyl alcohol” or “isopropyl alcohol” on the bottle). Find this out before using a new sanitiser, and if it contains less than this or it’s marked as alcohol-free, steer clear, because it will be too watered down to fight viruses.


What does soap and water do and when is it the best option?

All the experts agree – washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to kill bacteria and viruses, every time. Soap contains fat-like substances known as amphiphiles, which are very similar to the oily membrane that surrounds viruses. When applied to your skin, soap bonds with this membrane and makes it slide off, swiftly ripping out the virus underneath.

Of course, this only works if you wash your hands thoroughly, for at least twenty seconds, covering every inch of your skin with germ-busting soap. Quickly spraying your hands with cold water just won’t cut it.

But what’s the difference between liquid soap and bar soap? According to medical experts, they work equally well, and you can use whichever you prefer.

Liquid soap

The advantage of liquid soap is that it’s gentle on sensitive skin because it tends to be infused with moisturiser (Country Life Antibacterial Hand Wash, for example, is infused with essential oils to nourish dry hands). This can be particularly welcome when you’re using excessive amounts of hand sanitiser and drying out your hands.

Bar soap

On the other hand, when you use a bar of soap to wash your hands, you tend to rub more vigorously to create a lather, which can be very effective at removing dirt and killing germs. The right soap bars also contain natural oils that cleanse and exfoliate the skin (for example, Country Life soap bars contain nourishing ingredients like olive oil), and they are sustainable because they naturally break down during usage, making them a nice environmentally-friendly option.


The verdict

While hand sanitiser isn’t as effective as good old-fashioned soap and water, it still definitely has its place and should be used when you don’t have access to soap (for example when you’re out at the supermarket). But remember to wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you can to neutralise all germs and keep yourself healthy.

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