Which is better at preventing the spread of the flu virus: Hand sanitizer or handwashing?

The debate about whether hand sanitizer is better than handwashing with soap has been raging since hand sanitizer was invented.

Some people swear hand sanitizer is far superior to plain old soap, while others wouldn’t trust a bottle of that goo as far as they could throw it.

When it comes to reducing the spread of the flu virus, recent research shows one of these is clearly better.

Depending on which side of the debate you’re on, the answer may surprise you!

Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at both these methods.

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What is hand sanitizer and how does it work?

Hand sanitizer is a foam, gel or liquid used to kill bacteria on the hands. It’s classified as either alcohol-based or alcohol-free. It’s important to note that not all sanitizers are created equal.

Alcohol-based products contain ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, propyl alcohol or a blend of two or more.

When buying hand sanitizer, always get alcohol-based. The alcohol is what kills the germs. Without it, you’re just rubbing gel all over your hands… And spreading germs.

The brand of hand sanitizer and delivery method don’t matter. Just make sure it’s at least 60 percent alcohol. To be effective at destroying bacteria and viruses, a hand sanitizer must be between 60 percent and 95 percent alcohol.

Related: How to make homemade hand sanitizer that actually works

To use hand sanitizer properly, rub it all over your hands, using enough so that it takes about 20-30 seconds to rub in. Let it air dry. This has proven effective in reducing the spread of some (but not all) bacteria, fungus, and viruses.

Good old-fashioned handwashing

Plain old soap has been around since 2800 B.C. A lot longer than hand sanitizer. It’s the tried and true way to clean your hands and body…

And it’s proven better at killing the flu virus than hand sanitizer. Especially if you have wet mucus on your hands, which sometimes happens after blowing a child’s nose.

Related: How to get over your cold quick and keep from spreading it

A study published by the American Society for Microbiology found that, in a hospital setting, flu virus in wet mucus from infected patients was NOT destroyed after 2 minutes of exposure to sanitizer. It took about 4 minutes for the virus to be deactivated, compared to just 30 seconds with handwashing.

And as any busy person knows, nobody has time to hang around for 4 minutes, rubbing the sanitizer into their hands.

According to Theresa M. Michele, MD, of the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Drug Products, “Following simple handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness at home, at school and elsewhere. We can’t advise this enough. It’s simple, and it works.”

No more callers, we have a winner

So there you have it! Handwashing is the gold standard. But only if you do it properly.

Follow these 5 steps to ensure your hands are clean and you’ve minimized the risk of spreading germs and viruses:

  1. Run your hands under clean, running water (hot or cold).
  2. Lather up your hands and fingers with soap.
  3. Scrub for 20 seconds (or as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice).
  4. Rinse your hands with clean water.
  5. Dry your hands completely using a clean towel, a dryer, or let them air-dry.

That last step is VERY important. Do not skip it. Wet hands can pick up and spread germs more easily than dry hands.

It’s also important to wash your hands at key times, where you’re more likely to get and spread bacteria and viruses. These include:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

Any kind of soap will do the trick. You don’t need anything fancy or smelly, and antibacterial soap isn’t better than regular soap.

That said, remember that a high-alcohol hand sanitizer will work in a pinch, and is definitely better than not cleaning your hands at all.

Here’s to a healthy and flu-free future!


  1. Hand Sanitizer — Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  3. Situations Leading to Reduced Effectiveness of Current Hand Hygiene against Infectious Mucus from Influenza Virus-Infected PatientsmSphere | American Society for Microbiology
  4. When and How to Wash Your Hands — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  5. Antibacterial Soap? You Can Skip It, Use Plain Soap and Water — U.S. Food and Drug Administration


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Amanda Luft

By Amanda Luft

Amanda Luft is a writer based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. She's written extensively in the natural health world, on everything from organic living and disease to the power of nature on your health. When she's not writing, or cooking and baking healthy food for her family, you can find her out walking in the woods, reading, and practicing yoga.