Is hand sanitiser enough?

Posted on 1 June 2021

You seem to be spritzing all the time – at the shops, restaurants, and at home. But is hand sanitiser the best defence against COVID-19?


“Clean hands, open heart” has become a mantra during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – and rightly so. The question mark, however, is about the most effective and safest way to clean your hands.

Although the focus has been on hand-sanitising sprays and gels and you probably keep a bottle or two in your car or bag, it’s best to think of these as a portable alternative when you can’t access soap and water. Yes, contrary to what you may think, soap and water is the most effective way to kill viruses and remove them from your hands.

It’s important to understand that respiratory illnesses such as those caused by the common cold viruses, SARS-CoV-2, seasonal influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are spread via droplets. When someone who has the illness coughs or sneezes, this disperses droplets into the air, which others then inhale.

“Transmission of viruses may also occur when respiratory secretions that fall onto surfaces are transmitted by the hands to mucous membranes [by rubbing your eyes or nose],” says Christine Smedley, Infection Prevention and Control Co-ordinator: Mediclinic SA. Performing hand hygiene reduces the risk.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands with soap and water whenever possible to reduce germs, droplets and chemicals on your hands. But if soap and water are unavailable, using a hand sanitiser with at least 70% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs and viruses to others.

Alcohol-based hand sanitisers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but they don’t eliminate all types of germs. Also, you might not be using enough sanitiser or may wipe it off before it’s dried.

Research shows that, while hand sanitisers can be effective in a hospital setting where hands are generally clean, they may not be as effective in other environments when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. “Sanitiser doesn’t remove actual dirt and debris,” says Smedley. “Soap kills germs, binds them, and with the water, helps physically remove them off your skin and down the drain.”

Remember to wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. It’s especially important to wash before…

  • eating or preparing food
  • touching your face.

…and after

  • using the bathroom
  • leaving a public place
  • blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • handling your mask
  • changing a nappy
  • caring for someone sick
  • touching animals or pets.

Hand hygiene must be performed together with observing social distancing, wearing a mask and avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.

Remember, hand sanitisers should be stored out of the reach of young children and only used with adult supervision.

Published in Covid-19

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.