Store shelves may be wiped clean of hand sanitizer but soap is more effective for protecting yourself from COVID-19, according to infectious disease specialists.

“If at all possible, wash your hands with soap and water,” said Dr. Virginia Bieluch, the chief of infectious diseases at The Hospital of Central Connecticut, “If you can’t do that, then hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative.”

Hand sanitizer, which contains ethyl alcohol, was found to be largely ineffective against the flu virus in a recent research study. It was only effective, the scientists revealed, if it was left on the skin for four minutes. Otherwise, mucus that contained the virus protected it against the sanitizer.

Hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds – the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice, or 20-second choruses from popular tunes like “Raspberry Beret,” “Jolene” and “Karma Chameleon” for variety – with soap and water. Water temperature doesn’t matter as much as your hand washing technique.

The soap, Dr. Bieluch said, removes visible dirt from the hands and attacks viruses like flu and COVID-19. The viruses are encased in a fat coating that soap breaks apart so the virus cannot infect you. In addition, the act of rubbing your soapy hands together sloughs germs off and washes them down the drain.

Make sure you wash both sides of your hands, down to the wrist, and each fingernail and cuticle. Then dry them well, preferably on a paper towel you then throw away. The simple act of rubbing them dry with the paper helps shed any remaining germs.

When it comes to choosing a soap product, opt for liquid or foam. Bacteria can linger on a bar of soap, although rinsing it off before using it can help avoid someone else’s germs.

Dr. Bieluch suggested washing your hands more than usual, and especially at key times like:

  • Before preparing or eating food
  • After going to the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After touching garbage
  • After changing a diaper or helping a child or senior in the bathroom
  • After helping someone who is sick

As Dr. Bieluch mentioned, hand sanitizer is acceptable if you can’t wash. If the sanitizer contains at least 62 percent alcohol, it can break through the fatty coating around the virus. Cover your hands with the gel and rub them together until they feel dry.

 

For more information on preventing COVID-19, or help if you or someone is feeling sick, go to hartfordhealthcare.org/coronavirus.