Soap vs. Hand sanitizer: Which is Better?

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) position is that hand sanitizer is a good alternative when soap and running water is not available. This implies a preference for good old fashioned hand washing. The CDC also states that hand sanitizers are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty and that do not they kill all germs.

If soap, followed by intense abrasion/scrubbing, is better than hand sanitizer use, the next question is what kind of soap is better, bars or liquid soap? It seems like it may be liquid soap but the jury is still out. Bar soap has been found to harbour some microorganisms but these organisms are not transferred from the bar to our skin’s surface. That is good to know, because don’t we all avoid someone else’s used bar of soap?

As a medical student, we had a whole class on the importance of hand washing and how to do a better job of it. I am not lying. At first, it seemed a waste of time, but before long, we all came to understand why this topic warranted an entire class. Hand washing is one of the easiest infection prevention procedures. It is simple to do but despite all of the well-known benefits to hand washing for the prevention of infection, the noncompliance rate is still too high in hospital settings and contributes, in turn, to the current levels of Hospital Acquired Infections. Common infections are transferred from person to person by hand-to-hand contact or via fomites which are inanimate objects on which bacteria or other microorganisms can survive. The trick to adequate hand washing is time and effort in scrubbing. I was taught to wash my hands for 20 seconds, the amount of time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

So from an infection control perspective, soap (either bar or liquid) and water is the way to go. Remember, you can help stop the spread of infection by simply doing a good job of washing your hands. So scrub away with either bar or gel soap and you can do your part in infection control!


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