Soap, Water, and Sanitizing Gel: How to Keep Your Hands Clean

These days, we hear about the importance of handwashing and sanitizing our hands everywhere. The news talks about it, the experts talk about it, even celebrities on Instagram are talking about it. But do we really know how to properly clean our hands? When is it enough to use rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer, and when should we do old-fashioned soap-and-water cleansing?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends keeping hands clean at all times, especially during a viral pandemic. According to them, sanitizers and purifying gels that are alcohol-based are effective at reducing bacteria and germs on the skin. However, they cannot kill all types of bacteria. In addition, it is not ideal to only use sanitizers if your hands are visibly dirty (with grease, dust, or dirt). In such cases, handwashing is the best option.

Proper Hand Washing

Using Soap and Water

Girl washing hands on a counter sink

Nothing beats proper handwashing using soap and water. This is especially true when your hands and skin have grime or dirt. It also applies to certain cases where you are a carrier of, or have been exposed to, certain types of germs, such as the Norovirus and, more recently, Coronavirus (Covid-19).

Here are a few tips to guide you in executing proper handwashing technique:

  • Wet hands with clean tap water. Apply soap. Rub hands together to form a lather. Scrub well, including the spaces between the fingers, backs of the hands, under the nails, and wrist.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Most people sing the Happy Birthday song twice as a reference. Recently, people have been creative with song choices. Here is a list of songs that you can sing during handwashing (lasts for at least 20 seconds), courtesy of NPR.
  • Rinse hands and fingers thoroughly under running water. Dry with a clean towel or air dry.

Using Sanitizers

Woman pumping sanitizer gel out of the bottle and into hands

However, in cases where you must use sanitizing gels or sprays, the CDC recommends using one with a minimum of 60% alcohol concentration. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Washing using soap and water is still the best option. But in cases where there’s no water or soap (at work, during travel), sanitizing gels or sprays are your best alternative.
  • Be sure to read the label to see how much you should apply and rub on your hands. Make sure to sanitize the entire hands, including all fingers. Keep rubbing until the gel or liquid has dried up -- this should take about 20 seconds.

When to Clean Your Hands

Always clean your hands:

  • Before and after food preparation
  • Before and after eating
  • Before and after cleaning or treating wounds
  • Before, during, and after being around a sick person
  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing your child’s diaper
  • After handling or taking care of pets or animals
  • After handling trash
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose