The Key Differences Between Hand Sanitizer And Handwashing

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Wear a mask, wash your hands. This has been one of the most important messages that has circulated the country over the past several months. Proper hand hygiene is one of the best defenses we have to help decrease the spread of COVID-19. When this all started, hand soap and hand sanitizers were hot commodities – often completely sold out at stores. Now, as coronavirus cases continue to rise, keeping your hands clean remains critical.

But when it comes to hand sanitizer versus handwashing, is one better than the other? Jennifer Burgess, M.D., a family medicine doctor for Henry Ford Health System, says handwashing is always better.

“Handwashing is a more thorough process to clean your hands, when done properly,” says Dr. Burgess. “While hand sanitizer is more convenient, it is important to rely on hand sanitizer only in more low-risk situations.”

When It Is Safe To Use Hand Sanitizer?

Hand sanitizer is best to use when you are out and about. If you go to a store or pump gas, it is an easy way to disinfect your hands. Make sure to use enough so that you are able to rub it in over both the fronts and backs of your hands and in between your fingers. However, hand sanitizer should only be used when your hands aren’t visibly soiled.

“If you can see dirt on your hands, you need to wash your hands properly with soap and water,” says Dr. Burgess. “Hand sanitizer also cannot replace handwashing before and after eating, or after you have used the bathroom.”

Another common misconception about hand sanitizer is that it is dangerous to keep in the car. Some reports claim that high temperatures outside could result in the hand sanitizer exploding. Dr. Burgess advises that there is no official evidence to support this and encourages people to keep hand sanitizer in places like your car where it is easy to access if you touch possibly contaminated surfaces.

Are All Hand Sanitizers Equally Effective?

Early on in COVID-19, hand sanitizer was hard to find in stores. As a result, many recipes to make your own hand sanitizer were circulating the internet. With the latest surge of coronavirus cases, it is now NOT recommended that you make your own hand sanitizer under any situation. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), warns that there are many risks associated with making your own hand sanitizer including skin burns and lack of effectiveness.

“For hand sanitizer to be effective as an antibacterial, it has to be made up of at least 60% alcohol,” says Dr. Burgess. “It doesn’t matter if it comes in liquid or gel form, is scented or has glitter in it, as long as it is at least 60% alcohol, it will do the job.”

There are constant updates to how our nation responds to the COVID-19 outbreak every day. How we wash our hands won’t change, but be aware when it is appropriate to use hand washing over hand sanitizer. Make sure to keep up with reliable sources for COVID-19 updates:


To use our online screening tool, learn more about safety precautions at our facilities or to get all of the latest coronavirus updates, visit Henry Ford's COVID-19 Resource Center.

Dr. Jennifer Burgess is a family medicine doctor seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center in Commerce Township and West Bloomfield.

Categories: FeelWell