February 2022

· 2 min read

6 Science-Based Differences: Handwashing Versus Sanitizing

While washing and sanitizing our hands are the best ways to avoid being germ superspreaders, it’s helpful to understand the differences between them.
A father sprays hand sanitizer on his child’s hands - 6 Differences: Handwashing Versus Sanitizing | NSF

If two years of living with the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of washing and sanitizing our hands vigilantly to try to zap those germ spreaders - for ourselves and those around us.

Germs are everywhere. Everything we touch can make us sick. And while washing and sanitizing our hands are the best ways to avoid being superspreaders, it’s helpful to understand the differences between them.

I’ve turned to our experts for the lowdown on the distinction between handwashing and hand sanitizing. The bottom line: Soap and water work to remove all types of germs, while sanitizer kills certain germs on the skin and should be used as a substitute for handwashing only in the right situations.

Here are six science-based differences you should know:

  1. 1

    What’s Up With That?

    Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing particular kinds of germs, like norovirus, Cryptosporidium, Clostridioides difficile and coronavirus, as well as heavy metals and pesticides.

  2. 2

    Superior Sanitizing

    Hand sanitizers are a good alternative when you’re away from home with no sink in sight. They work more effectively to reduce the number of microbes on your hands, but only when they are not physically dirty.

  3. 3

    Simplified Science

    Water makes the soap work better; soap traps germs and chemicals in the bubbles you create by scrubbing. Rinsing the soap off removes the germs. Drying your hands makes them less vulnerable to spreading germs attracted to moist surfaces.

  4. 4

    Allowing Allergens

    Sanitizer does not remove all allergens from hands or faces. If you’re going to be around someone with a severe allergy, protect them with proper handwashing. Allergens on hands spread to surfaces that can cause severe reactions in those affected by the ingredient.

  5. 5

    Get It Right

    Hand sanitizers without 60%-95% alcohol 1) may not work equally well for many types of germs and 2) may reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them outright.

  6. 6


    Make sure to rub the sanitizer all over your hands and rub continuously until they feel dry! If you stop rubbing too soon, you are basically voiding the germ killer you just put on your hands.

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