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Hand Sanitizer vs. Hand Soap

The flu has run rampant since the season began October 2017. The percentage of reported Influenza-like illnesses rose from 2.88 to 12.82 percent in Texas from the start of the flu season to today, according to a report by the Texas Department of Health Services.
Hand hygiene is one of the most effective ways to prevent flu spread, according to Park Cities Pediatrics’ Matthew Simon, MD.
But with so many options when it comes to hand hygiene, how do we know what really works?
The Verdict
According to Simon, traditional hand washing is the best way to sanitize hands.
“That includes any type of soap with more than 30 seconds of rubbing hands together and rinsing off,” he says.
For drying off, one-use paper towels or hand dryers are better than hand towels.
“Ideally use a single-use paper towel afterwards and throw it in the trashcan, because reusing rags or towels can just re-contaminate your hands,” he explains.
In the absence of soap and water, hand sanitizer is a good bet; however, be sure to look for hand sanitizers containing more than 60 percent alcohol—otherwise you won’t be killing many germs, Simon says.
Though hand soap and sanitizer are both effective to some extent against the flu, one is the clear winner when it comes to fighting other illnesses.
“Anytime diarrhea is the illness, I recommend soap and water,” says Simon.
In sum: If in doubt, wash your hands. And do it several times a day, especially before meals, after using the toilet, after coughing or sneezing, and anytime you interact with a person who’s under the weather.
Tips & Tricks
Whether you’re soaping up or sanitizing, Justin Smith, MD, a pediatrician at Cook Children’s primary care office in Trophy Club, says you have to teach kids to be thorough.
“For both soap and hand sanitizer, teach children to rub all surfaces of their hands (the backs and between the fingers are commonly missed spots),” says Smith. “Sanitizer should be rubbed until the surface of the hands are dry.”
He adds that singing “Happy Birthday” twice is a good trick that will let children know how long they should be washing their hands. And, if your child has sensitive skin, opt for soaps that are low in scent and dye. (See sidebar below for chemical-free picks.)