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20 seconds to kill germs

How and when to wash or sanitize your hands.

Article Author: Wesley Roberts

Article Date:

Pink Hand Soap

During cold and flu season, and throughout the year, clean hands are a great first line of defense to protect yourself from getting sick.

Whether you're using soap and water or hand sanitizer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends scrubbing for at least 20 seconds – the equivalent of singing the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice. Those 20 seconds can make a big difference in reducing the spread of illnesses, infections, diseases and germs!

Hand sanitizer vs. hand washing

Wondering how regular soap and water compares to hand sanitizer when it comes to killing germs on your hands?

In Almeria, Spain, researchers studied 911 children younger than age 3 from 24 daycare centers. One group used hand sanitizer to clean hands, one group used soap and water, and the control group followed its usual hand-washing routines.

After the eight-month study period, data revealed the hand sanitizer group missed 3.25% of days in daycare, the soap-and-water group missed 3.9% of days, and the control group missed 4.2% of days – suggesting hand sanitizer use cuts back on young children's sick days when compared to hand washing.

Interesting? Sure. But Viola Hoxha, MD, a family physician with Baptist Primary Care, wants people to know the truth isn't black and white.

"The study had limitations that can't be overlooked," said Dr. Hoxha. "While hand sanitizer can be a convenient option when soap and water aren't available, it's not always the better choice."

The study was only done for respiratory illnesses. For common colds, hand sanitizer would be a good option to reduce the spreading of germs. When it comes to illnesses accompanied by diarrhea or when hands are visibly dirty, soap and water is the right choice.

Additionally, the study had a narrow and specific patient population with a limited age group and a small number of daycare centers. The authors conjectured the reason why hand sanitizer users had fewer missed days of school was compliance; It's easier for energetic children under the age of 3 to use hand sanitizer frequently and correctly than the full, detailed soap-and-water routine.

Steps for washing or sanitizing your hands

Dr. Hoxha offered advice based on CDC recommendations for how and when to use each in the infographic below.

Infographic on hand sanitizer vs. washing hands

You should always

Stay healthy with preventive care

A primary care physician can provide more information about reducing the spread of germs and other preventive care measures to keep you healthy.

Find a provider

Reference: CDC handwashing guidance

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