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Is Soap or Sanitizer better against COVID-19?

Would using a hand sanitizer give you the same results? While they both might seem interchangeable, they are meant for different circumstances. Here we will cover the effectiveness of each one against germs and even COVID-19.

By: Sylvia Slezak | Mar 2020

COVID-19 3D Render COVID-19 3D Render photo by csp_focalpoint

Soap and sanitizer go hand-in-hand, like salt and pepper, peaches and cream, knife and fork, cheese and crackers, bread and butter, and so on. But, could we do with one and not the other? Do we need both soap and sanitizer?


Unfortunately, most people do not wash their hands properly. Some only rinse with water and omit the soap. According to the CDC and other healthcare professionals, it is not enough to simply wash the palms of your hands. Germs are all over your hands, not just on your palms. You have to rub the soap all over your hands -- between your fingers, front, back, wrist, knuckles, fingernails. Not just for a few seconds, but vigorously for 20 seconds. That's about the amount of time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. Hands should be washed frequently, particularly before touching food or after using the restroom. Sadly, even this is often neglected.

What makes this sudsy ritual the best hygiene method of getting rid of germs and eliminating dirt, debris, and grime from your hands?

The friction of lathering, in addition to the ingredients in hand soap, reduces and eliminates germs and removes pathogens like norovirus, Giardia, and C. difficile. The soap loosens the germs' ability to grip your hands, and makes it easier for the water to rinse them off and wash them down the drain.

How exactly does soap and warm water obtain such power over these nasty parasites?

The answer lies in your scrubbing method and their skin. Under the microscope, coronaviruses appear to be pointy spires, giving them the appearance of having a crown or "corona" -- thus the name. Beneath that crown is the outer layer of the virus that is made up of lipids, also known as fat. Here is this coronavirus covered with buttery fat sticking to a surface like your hands. Now imagine you're washing a plate covered with grease. Trying to wash the dish with water alone will not get the grease to release. You need dishwashing detergent to dissolve the grease off the plate.

Wahing hand with soap
Wahing hand with soap photo by csp_ia_64

How does hand soap effectively dissolve the greasy liquid coating of the virus?

By physically inactivating the virus, so that it cannot bind to and enter human cells anymore, hand soap effectively dissolves the greasy liquid coating of the virus. Each soap molecule looks like a tiny chain with a head and a tail. The head loves the water and bonds with it, but the tail loves oil and fat and attempts to avoid the water. While frantically trying to escape the water, the tail of the soap is drawn to the fatty outer layer of the virus and begins to pry it open. As soon as the virus or bacteria splits open, it spills its guts into the soapy water and dies.

The combination of warm water and scrubbing with your hands creates more soap bubbles, which disrupt the chemical bonds that allow germs, viruses, and bacteria to stick to surfaces. This is why it is important for you to scrub, build up bubbles, and keep scrubbing every crack and crevice of your hands, fingers, and fingernails, for 20 seconds. When you rinse your hands, all the germs that have been trapped, hurt or killed by soap molecules are washed away. Your life and health may depend on you applying this handwashing technique.

Does it matter if it's cold water or does it have to be warm water?

If you use cold water, you must work vigorously to get a lather and get everything soapy and bubbly. Soap with warm water gets a much better lather and produces more bubbles. The bubbles indicate that the soap is trying to encase the dirt, bacteria, and viruses in them.


If you don't have access to soap and running water, then hand sanitizer is a practical backup. But in general, sanitizers aren't as effective as hand washing, and they require proper technique for them to work properly.

What is the main ingredient in most hand sanitizers?

Isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) or ethanol (the principle ingredient in alcoholic drinks) is the main ingredient in alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

Does it matter what type of hand sanitizer is used?

Believe it or not, the type of sanitizer doesn't matter. It's the active ingredient and its concentration in the sanitizer that really matters. Beware of sanitizers with too little alcohol, or those that use alcohol substitutes, because they are not as effective or recommended by the CDC. According to the CDC, sanitizers with less than 60 percent alcohol only reduce the growth of germs rather than eradicate them completely. A concentration ratio between 60 to 95 percent ethyl alcohol is best.

How should hand sanitizers be used to be effective?

Properly using a hand sanitizer is essential to its effectiveness. Simply putting a little dollop in the palm of your hand and wiping quickly is not good enough. You have to use enough to get it all over your hands, rubbing it between your fingers and on the back of your hands, thoroughly until they feel dry. The CDC advises that this process, much like hand washing, should take 20 seconds. You need to make sure the alcohol gets into direct contact with the bacteria or virus in order for it to help break up the germ membranes.

Do hand sanitizers kill cold and flue viruses?

While sanitizer does not kill norovirus, Giardia, or the diarrhea-causing bacterium Clostridium Difficile, it does, however, do a good job of killing cold and flu viruses.


The CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with 60 percent or higher concentration) only when soap and running water are not available. Hand sanitizers are quick, easy and somewhat effective when you are out and about in places that have a great deal of germs. Be careful not to use it too much because it can dry your hands excessively and lead to painful irritation. While sanitizers can kill off germs, the germs will repopulate once you touch your arms or any part of your body. And if your hands are covered in dirt, grime or sticky stuff, hand sanitizer will not help you.

How to wash your hands properly
How to wash your hands properly photo by csp_MicroOne

Soap cleans hands, sanitizer does not.

Clean soap and running water are still the best defense against germs. The CDC recommends to wash hands often, especially during the following key times:

  • before, during, and after food preparation
  • prior to eating food
  • before and after caring for someone ill at home with symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea
  • before and after treating a cut or wound
  • after using the washroom
  • after changing a diaper, or cleaning up a child after being soiled
  • after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • after handling pet food or pet treats
  • after touching trash or garbage

You don't have to be a health care provider to make an impact. We must all work together to break the chain of infection and stop the spread of germs. Practicing excellent hand hygiene is crucial to staying healthy year-round. Visit to find professional services in your local area to help you with projects or goals.

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