Originally published in BOMA-San Diego Tips, March 2022

If the pandemic has revealed anything, it is a renewed sense of awareness of how dirty hands can get during the average day. Without thinking, we instinctively touch our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, which are prime locations for infectious disease to get in. While your go-to response may be to pile on hand sanitizer, it’s not the most effective way to prevent the spread of infection. To maintain proper hand hygiene, it is important to understand the difference between hand sanitizing and hand washing.

Hand Sanitizing

To quickly kill germs on skin if a sink is not available, hand sanitizer is the way to go. As a fast acting, self-drying method of germ removal, hand sanitizer is often the more preferred method of cleaning hands. However, hand sanitizer does not actually remove these germs but rather kills them. The outer coating of these potentially infectious substances is neutralized by the sanitizer, but germs will continue to remain on hands. Also, depending on the kind of hand sanitizer used, not all germs are necessarily killed. According to CDC recommendations, hand sanitizer be at least 60% alcohol and your hands be clean of any dirt or grease prior to sanitizing for minimum efficiency.

Sanitizing Neutralizes

Hand sanitizer can be a dangerous health hazard if not used appropriately. It is regulated by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as an over-the-counter drug and is very flammable. It also does not remove metals and chemical residue that may be lingering on hands. In short, hand sanitizer is a great quick fix when a sink and soap are not available but should not replace regular hand washing.

Handwashing Removes

Hand Washing

One of the easiest hygienic routines continues to be the classic: frequent, thorough hand washing. While this typically is done after using the restroom or before eating, there are many more opportunities throughout the day that may warrant extra hand washing. When working with food items, touching animals, or handling garbage, remember to take a hand washing break as you have just exposed yourself to a plethora of potentially harmful germs.

When using the sink to wash your hands, it is recommended by professionals, such as the Mayo Clinic, to scrub for about 20 seconds. (As shared throughout 2020, that is about the length of “Happy Birthday” sung twice.) Be sure to apply a generous amount of soap and then lather well. The water can be room temperature – it does not need to be hot. Get in between fingers, nail beds, and the palm of your hand. Again: cleaning your hands well with soap and water is the only proven way to remove all germs accumulated on hands.

Studies have shown that a person can end up touching their face on average 23 times per hour. Monitoring your personal exposure may seem difficult to track as it is often an unconscious movement, which is why proper hand washing and sanitizing are even more important in preventing the spread of germs. By staying on top of these hand cleaning techniques, you’ll significantly reduce your personal exposure to harmful germs, which in turn keeps your colleagues and community safe. Maintaining a clean facility requires diligent personal hygiene of the people inside the building, and ultimately the power is in your hands.