If there is one consistent message about good hygiene to promote good health, it is that we must wash our hands regularly. Many of us carry hand sanitiser with us, but is it really an adequate alternative to washing our hands with soap and water?
Alcohol-based hand sanitisers are helpful in reducing the amount of bacteria on our hands, but there are many types of bacteria that are not eliminated. They are also quite ineffective at getting rid of things like dirt and grease on your hands, so hand sanitisers are no substitute for hand washing.
Hand washing properly with soap and water
It is particularly important to wash your hands with soap and water if they are visibly dirty or if you know you have been around certain types of bacteria, like Norovirus.
Here is the correct way to wash your hands with soap and water:
- Wet your hands with clean running water and apply some soap.
- Rub your hands together, scrubbing well and lathering every part of your hands, including between the fingers, under the nails and all over the backs of the hands.
- Continue rubbing for a minimum of 20 seconds. For reference, this is approximately the amount of time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice over.
- Rinse your hands thoroughly under running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or, better yet, air dry them.
You should always clean your hands before, during and after handling food. You should also clean them before eating. If you use the toilet or change a baby’s nappy, your hands should be washed. The same is true if you:
- Touch an animal or clean up their waste
- Handle dirty rubbish
- Treat any wounds (wash before and after)
- Cough or sneeze into your hands
- Work with someone who is sick
It is good practice to get into the habit of washing your hands regularly using the technique described above. This will help promote good hygiene and avoid the spread of harmful bacteria or viruses that could otherwise have been prevented.
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How to use a hand sanitiser
While proper handwashing is always best, there are times when you don’t have access to soap and water. Hand sanitisers can be a good backup option to help minimise the amount of bacteria and other microorganisms on your hands.
Here is the correct way to use hand sanitiser:
- Check the label to see how much of the hand sanitiser is needed for a single clean. Apply the correct amount to the palm of one hand.
- Rub the hands together quickly.
- Ensure that you rub the product over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until you no longer feel any of the product remaining. It should take approximately 20 seconds.
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Does it matter which hand sanitiser?
There are many different hand sanitisers on the market, with different ingredients which result in different levels of effectiveness. As a point of reference, it is best to use a product that has at least 60% alcohol as this will be most effective at targeting germs. You may find that other hand sanitisers smell more pleasant, but the alcohol content is the bit that kills the germs.
Which soap is best - antibacterial, bar or liquid?
Outside of healthcare settings, antibacterial soaps are no more effective than plain soap and water for killing disease-causing microorganisms. Plain soap is less expensive and easier to find and there is no evidence that it is less effective at preventing infection under most circumstances.
Liquid soap is generally considered better than bar soap for cleaning your hands. It is less likely to spread germs from one person to another, and many liquid soaps include a moisturising agent to help keep your hands hydrated. The problem with bar soap is that germs can exist on the bar and be spread onto the next user’s skin. However, it is usually fine if no-one in the household has skin infections. It is not suitable for public toilets.
Hand sanitisers with 60%+ alcohol are a good backup option for when you don’t have access to soap and water, but they are no substitute for proper handwashing. Liquid soap is best, and it isn’t necessary to use antibacterial soap outside of healthcare settings. Rubbing the soap for at least 20 seconds is the most important step of hand washing, and you should not use a dirty towel to dry your hands afterwards.