• Josh Goller

The Great Debate: Soap vs. Sanitizer

The other day as I was perusing Facebook, I ran across the photo below from Oregon Grain Growers Brand Distillery.

These folks are located in Pendleton, Oregon and a couple of dear clients are highly involved in the operation there. One of the things that really strikes me is how community-minded these people are. A quick survey of their social media posts shows how generous and kind they have been to their community – especially children – in providing no cost meals to kids while schools have been shuttered by executive order. So it really comes as no surprise that they are now looking to make hand sanitizer to give out to the community. Kudos to them, and please be sure to support this business and others like it that are both supportive of their communities and doing such socially responsible work!

One of the lines on the label in the picture especially caught my attention: “this stuff isn’t better than a good old fashion hand wash with hot water and soap.” By now, we’ve all certainly heard that mantra repeated on television, in the newspaper, on social media, and myriad other outlets that are trying to provide information to us during this time and have generally accepted it to be true.

I have a background in science. My undergraduate degree is in biology and scientific inquiry still resonates with me. So, when I see the conventional wisdom regarding handwashing versus hand sanitizer being put forward, I want to know if it’s true and what makes it so. So let’s delve into that a bit here, shall we?

How does hand sanitizer work?

Hand sanitizers like those that have been out-of-stock in stores for weeks on end are essentially made from isopropyl alcohol, a gel, and essential oils if you like the sanitizer to smell nice. For many viruses, the alcohol destroys the outer layer of the virus, neutralizing it. Some viruses have harder “shells” that are more resistant to the effects of the alcohol, making sanitizers ineffective on those viruses. Norovirus, foot and mouth disease, poliovirus, and hepatitis A are resistant to sanitizers. Viruses than can be effectively neutralized with sanitizers include MRSA, influenza, hepatitis B and C, HIV, SARS, and even COVID-19. So if hand sanitizer is effective against COVID-19, why should we prefer soap and water?

The case for soap and water

For the most part, soaps work much differently. Rather than killing the virus, soap lifts away dirt, grime, oils, and microbes and allows them to be easily rinsed away with water. Sanitizers don’t remove microbes, but they can neutralize them and other harmful agents such as pesticides and spores can remain even after using hand sanitizer. People using sanitizers also can misuse them by not allowing the sanitizer to dry thoroughly before wiping it away, diminishing the effectiveness of the hand sanitizer.

In conclusion

The go-to choice for helping to keep your hands clean and prevent the spread of coronavirus and other infectious diseases is soap and water. Hand sanitizer will do in a pinch, but should not be used when soap and water are easily accessible. That said, hand sanitizer that is used effectively and as directed is a helpful tool to have to combat coronavirus. So, carry it in your purse or car. Use it when you have to run a quick errand to the grocery store. But if you’re at home with good old soap and water, then lather up with that instead.

Stay safe out there and wash your hands!


P.S.: If you are interested in reading a more in-depth analysis of the soap versus sanitizer debate, I recommend this article from Popular Science:

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