Hand hygiene at work: The Hand Soap vs. Sanitizer Debate

It’s no secret that proper hand washing and overall hand hygiene are key contributors to any best health practices strategy. We’ve been told since we were young that washing and sanitizing our hands not only helps to remove dirt and germs, but also helps to prevent those same contaminants from transferring from your hands to your food, to your face, to your mouth, or to frequently touched surfaces.

The onset and evolution of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has shed new light on the importance of proper hand hygiene, as people all over the world fight to prevent infection. The market has been flooded with various hand soaps and sanitizers, in pumps and sprays, all promising the bacteria and virus-fighting power required to help keep you, your loved ones, your employees, and your clients safe. But which ones truly offer the protection you’re seeking?

It’s Important to Understand the Differences

There’s a major difference between hand washing and hand sanitizing, and which one is appropriate for the effective elimination of germs in a given situation. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple question: are your hands visibly soiled? In other words, is dirt or another substance (food, beauty products, etc.) physically present on your hands? If the answer is yes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Hands should be washed with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when visibly soiled, before eating, and after using the restroom.”

If your hands show no signs of physical soiling, the CDC recommends that, “an alcohol-based hand rub is preferred over soap and water in most clinical situations due to evidence of better compliance compared to soap and water.”

A combination of both methods is often recommended to provide added protection. Wash with soap and water to remove visible soiling, then sanitize to neutralize any contaminants that may have been missed by hand washing alone. And of course, there is also the question of availability, so it’s important to note that if/when a sink, soap, and hot running water are not an option, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is recommended over doing nothing at all. Running into the bathroom to wash your hands is not always an option, so strategically placing hand sanitizer dispensers in common and high-traffic areas goes a long way in optimizing an overall hand health strategy.

Not All Hand Sanitizers are Equal

Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the market has been saturated with hand sanitizers of all makes, sizes, styles, and scents (though you may not know it based on the often barren shelves at your local grocery stores and pharmacies). When considering which hand sanitizer is best for your needs, you should consider two primary factors: alcohol content and manual or hands-free dispensing.

Alcohol Content and Type

The CDC recommends alcohol-based hand rubs (ABHRs) with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent. ABHRs with less than 60 percent alcohol content just do not have the potency to break the surface membranes of virus and bacteria cells (thereby killing or rendering them ineffective). ABHRs are available with alcohol contents of up to 95 percent, and as a rule of thumb, the higher the alcohol content, the higher percentage of germs the sanitizer will kill.

It’s important to note, however, that when it comes to hand sanitizing, not all alcohols are considered equal, either. In a release from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is recommended that consumers use only ABHRs containing ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, or benzalkonium chloride, and avoid those containing methanol or 1-propanol, as they could potentially be toxic.

See the FDA’s complete list of hand sanitizers that consumers should not use.

Dispenser Options

There are essentially two options when it comes to hand sanitizer (and soap) dispensers designed for commercial use: contact (manual) and contactless (hands-free).

When it comes to hand washing and hand sanitizing, there stands one general rule: the less contact the better when it comes to hygiene. The reason for this is simple. When do you reach for the soap or hand sanitizer dispenser? That’s right; when your hands are soiled or unsanitized (AKA covered in germs). Using a manual soap or hand sanitizer dispenser typically requires two hands—the one that’s pumping, squeezing, or squirting the delivery device, and the one that’s receiving the soap or sanitizer. Using one germ-covered hand to pump, squeeze, or squirt can actually transfer the viruses, bacteria, etc. from that hand to said dispenser, pump, or bottle, leaving them to be transferred to the next hand (which is likely the one you just sanitized or covered in soap), creating a vicious (and pointless) cycle of germ-transference and need for killing.

Hands-free dispensers are often recommended for better health, based on their nature alone. Typically, a targeted spray, spritz, soap, or foam is dispensed directly onto your hands by way of a motion-detecting sensor, effectively minimizing any potential for cross-contamination that is often associated with manual dispensers. They’re also not as susceptible to the clogging and messes of their manual counterparts.

Though there is no real hard and fast rule for which type of dispenser you should be using, the evidence above suggests that hands-free is the more logical choice. Not that manual dispensers don’t have their place in the market, as they certainly have their benefits (convenience, portability, and costs primarily), but their required one-hand-on, one-hand-off functionality puts a big check in the “con” column.

Fortunately, hands-free dispensers and accompanying > 60 percent alcohol content hand sanitizers are readily available to businesses of all sizes through managed Facility Service Programs, like those offered by UniFirst, and through local and online retailers. Facility service providers, however, typically provide all required dispensers, restock all required hand care products on a schedule, perform equipment maintenance, and replace dispensers as needed—essentially taking all the legwork and ongoing headaches out of the process for the buyer.

Introducing soap and sanitizer dispensers to your place of business is a simple and effective way to help stop the spread of sickness and show your clients and employees that you’re serious about their health and well-being.

UniFirst Rental and Facility Service Programs

Through a managed UniFirst Facility Service Program, you’ll have access to some of the most effective soap and hand sanitizer products in the industry. UniFirst’s proprietary brand offers a selection of foam and gel soaps and sanitizers with both manual and hands-free dispensers. Also available are leading brands from GOJO® like Supro MaxTM, Purell® and PROVON to round out UniFirst’s hand hygiene offering.

Working with UniFirst means first-rate service and selection with a dedicated Route Service Representative (RSR) who will help keep your facility services program running at peak efficiency with deliveries, restocking, repairs, replacements, and of course, a smile. You can browse more than 40 hand care products and dispenser options available through a UniFirst facility services program by clicking here. But remember, the overall health of your staff doesn’t stop with hand hygiene. It is, of course, an important piece in your overall health and safety strategy, but there are many more things to consider in your efforts to keep your team healthy and safe. So while you’re strategizing your approach to hand hygiene, have a look at the comprehensive facility services UniFirst offers that can help you meet your health and safety goals.

Request a quote for your business today, and a UniFirst representative will be in touch to discuss your options.

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