Before 2020, I rarely thought about hand sanitizer, except to be grateful to have a bottle on me after touching a grimy subway pole. But this year, it’s taken on an increasingly important role in my life. I have a favorite type (which smells like a lemon spritz), I store them on a designated shelf, and I never, ever leave home without a bottle. But sometimes I wonder: Is using hand sanitizer really as effective as washing your hands with soap and water?
Not exactly. Sudsing up at a sink should be your first choice when it comes to cleansing, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While both options fulfill their ultimate goal of nixing bacteria and viruses, hand sanitizer (which uses alcohol to kill germs on contact) does have some limitations. Since sanitizer doesn’t actually remove anything from your hands, if you’ve got visible dirt or grime then soap and water is always the way to go. That’s true for obvious reasons (gross), but also because dirt or debris could theoretically prevent hand sanitizer from reaching and covering the skin before it dries, which limits its effectiveness.