Hand Hygiene and Hand Sanitisers

Hand Hygiene and Hand Sanitisers

In this New Normal world we find ourselves in, something that has taken on a new level of significance for all of us is hygiene - and, more specifically, hand hygiene.

It’s undeniable that it’s always been considered important (even pre-pandemic) - but right now it’s simply untenable to neglect.

With new scientific evidence and experimentation comes advancement, development and advice - and people, for the most part, are listening. In early 2020, with the British government’s advice on how to curb the spread of COVID-19 directly referring to alcohol-based hand sanitiser, panic-buying and stockpiling of the substance led to nation-wide shortages and concerns over long-term supply. Thankfully, it’s now available in spades, and its use is one of the two main methods of cleaning one’s hands widely recommended for the prevention of coronavirus infection.

But what about traditional hand-washing, you might ask? The centuries-old practice still holds relevance today, with experts reckoning that it still reigns supreme over hand sanitiser in many cases due to its ability to remove visible dirt and dislodge virus particles, as well as many modern soaps boasting antibacterial properties. However, due to the longer time it takes to properly wash one’s hands (the NHS recommends scrubbing for at least 20 seconds), the need to wet one’s hands (which increases risk of transmission of pathogens) and its inability to kill bacteria as efficiently as a sanitiser or disinfectant, hand sanitisers can be considered preferable in some aspects.

Let’s weigh up the pros and cons of both.



Very effective against bacteria and envelope viruses like COVID-19

Quick to administer

Relatively cheap and simple to use

Convenient; easy to carry and less hassle than using soap and water on the go


Cannot remove visible dirt reliably

If under ~60/70% alcohol, it’s likely to be ineffective

Can irritate skin

Is often greasy or odorous



Effective against most pathogens

Can dislodge virus particles of all types (soap’s amphiphile molecules (which have both a lipophilic - fat loving - and a hydrophilic - water loving - end) destroy outer viral membranes)

Antibacterial if used correctly

Soap is cheap

Can remove visible dirt and grease

Often soft on sensitive skin


Very inconvenient to perform away from a basin

Takes 20 seconds to complete

Requires soap, water and a method of drying hands

Results in wet hands

It’s quite clear that both methods have their fair share of advantages and disadvantages. But the interesting thing is that WHO guidance ranks hand washing as more effective against pathogens than hand sanitiser because, through scrubbing, it can cover your skin’s large surface area and function effectively. Also, according to forbes.com, when attempting to protect hands against the influenza A virus, even washing with water alone deactivated the virus particles faster than trying to use hand sanitiser (which would have needed 4 minutes of uninterrupted exposure to kill them due to a naturally-occurring layer of mucous they feature).

Regardless of which methods you might choose at given times, hand hygiene, as a whole, is - and will continue to be - absolutely vital if we are, as a society, to begin managing (and living alongside) the threat of COVID-19.

Right now, in the U.K., lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease - meaning many people feel safe enough to return to communal work places and environments. Good hygiene levels will be absolutely essential to ensure case numbers and outbreaks do not spring up - so, based upon NHS guidelines, these are our 4 steps to hand hygiene success.

  1. Consider what you have been doing and where you have been

Have you just used the toilet or are about to handle food? What about having recently shaken someone’s hand or touched a communal object like a doorknob or a cash machine?

If you believe there is an increased chance that you have picked up some pathogens, you should seek to clean your hands (as above, hand sanitiser will suffice but soap and water is always preferable.)

  1. Choose your method of cleansing

If you elect that your hands need cleaning, consider your surroundings. If you are at home, it is strongly recommended that you use soap and water and dry fully with an absorbent object such as a towel or kitchen roll.

If you are out and about instead and are too far away from public toilets, alcohol based hand sanitiser will very much do the job.

Be sure to seek hand washing facilities if you find bodily fluids or sticky/greasy substances on your hands as alcohol hand gel will be ineffective in removing these. Also, if you have any cuts or open wounds, soap and water are far less likely to be irritative or painful.

  1. Clean effectively - part one (use of soap and water)

First wet hands - allowing soap to spread across the entire surface of your hands faster and with less chance of wastage.

Next, dispense soap - one serving is usually ample, although in all cases you will need enough to entirely cover both your hands with the lather.

Start by rubbing your palms together to begin lathering the soap and spreading it around.

Next, use one palm to rub soap onto (and around) the back of the other hand before doing the same on the opposite sides.

Then, clean in between both sets of fingers by interlocking them and moving them in and out.

After, rub tips of fingers and nails on opposite palm. If you have longer nails, pay attention to cleaning underneath them - you may wish to apply additional soap for these alone.

Finally, curve one hand into an O shape and use this to carefully clean your opposite thumb. Repeat on the other side.

Then ensure hands are fully dry - using a physical object to clean one’s hands instead of a hot air dryer can reduce risk of contamination.

  1. Clean effectively - part two (use of hand sanitiser)

To start with, apply a blob of gel onto one palm.

Rub palms together to spread it around.

Then, use one palm to rub sanitiser onto (and around) the back of the other hand before doing the same on the opposite sides.

Ensure that you clean in between fingers and on nailbeds/under nails as above as well as scrubbing your thumb and the enlarged part of your hand at the base of it.

Make sure that you do not rinse or wipe sanitiser off as this will decrease its opportunity to be effective - and ensure you stay away from fire or extreme heat as ethanol (the main constituent ingredient) is volatile and could catch alight.

While these are good general guidelines, your specific line of work will possibly dictate what you will do and how you will do it. For example, in healthcare settings, hand sanitiser is often preferred over hand washing due to its speed and convenience (as well as the opportunity to avoid wetting hands regularly - moisture is a good vector of pathogens) - but in food service environments this is not at all recommended. For example, people working in this sector are much more likely to have their hands dirtied with proteins and fatty substances - these are greasy and will be fairly unaffected by a hand sanitiser. Also, when working with meat, the chance of contact with non-envelope, enteric (meaning spread through faeces and vomit) viruses like norovirus (etc.) is vastly increased, and alcohol hand gels are also useless against these due to their outer protein structures known as capsids which ethanol cannot penetrate.

If you are in a management position and feel the need to promote hand hygiene or do more to protect yourself and your colleagues, there are many things you can do. For example, a sign reminding employees to wash their hands with the correct technique and for the full length of time is likely to prevent anyone who perhaps let the thought slip their mind from leaving the room with soiled hands. Additionally, antibacterial door handles are available - meaning that something that was once a prime method of disease spread can now be a lot less feared. Moreover, don’t discount the power of hand sanitisers and hand washing used in combination - you are able to reap the benefits of both and ensure even more foolproof cleanliness. It would also be highly wise to invest in hands-free alternatives of commonly-used facilities where possible and feasible - examples of which include automatic hand sanitiser dispensers and foot-pedal operated bins alongside the obvious automatic lights and doors. These would obviously minimise the need to touch collective features like light switches and door handles, meaning the chance of transmission of disease is decreased significantly.

As well as that, an understated (but also potentially vital) option would be regular, meticulous cleaning - assuming your workspace is already cleaned daily, it could be worth employing additional cleaning personnel or requesting more hours in order to receive a really deep cleaning and disinfection. Hands-free dispenser solutions are all very well, but if hands-on methods have to be maintained in some areas, it is absolutely essential that they are sanitised as much as the hands that touch them are.

Strive to educate and remind your employees that pathogens can hide in the most unexpected places - their computer keyboards, mice and their smartphones can become veritable hotspots if not cleaned regularly due to their regular contact with hands.