Who doesn't HATE the smell of sanitizer? Particularly the brand that they use in the hospital, which is made of mostly alcohol and has a very strong odor. Which got me to thinking.... Sanitizer is much easier to distribute and use than soap and water. You don't need running water, a sink to keep clean, and soap and towels. And you don't have to continually educate folks about how to wash their extremities properly. But do alcohol cleaners actually WORK better than properly washing hands?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scrubbing up with H2O is the best way clean your digits because it removes any 'solids' from your extremities, like oil and dirt, and reduces the most microbes from your skin (USA. CDC, 2013). Hand sanitizer, containing a minimum of 60% alcohol, will kill most germs, but will leave behind some bugs like C. difficile and norovirus, that a detergent would eliminate.
Hand sanitizer is also not nearly as effective when used on visibly dirty or greasy hands (USA. CDC, 2013). Based on this information from the CDC, scouring with soap is more effective than lathering with alcohol cleanser, but this conclusion does not take in to account other factors of success such as using each method (soap or sanitizer) properly.
Professor James Scott, Associate Professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health with cross appointments to the Department of Medicine, Division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology, says that bottled cleansers actually eliminate MORE germs on the skin and keep them away longer. He also says that sanitizers are gentler on skin and cause less cracking and injury than scrubbing, thereby further reducing bacteria on the hands.
More importantly he points out how much easier it is for health care workers to use alcohol cleaners properly, which has dramatically increased hand hygiene compliance and reduced germ transmission. This has made sanitizer more successful than scrubbing up in clinical settings (Hall, 2012).
Is hand sanitizer more effective than soap and water? The short answer is, 'it depends'. Scouring with suds may eliminate more germs, but people are less likely to soap up regularly and are even less likely to wash properly. Sanitizer may not kill all of the bugs living on a person's hands but it is much easier to use, which in turn encourages people to practice proper hygiene. This makes the success rate of bottled cleanser higher than detergents.
So, while I don't enjoy the smell of the alcohol in hand sanitizer, I'll take it as a good sign that I'm dealing with someone with clean hands.