What works better for killing influenza virus — soap and water or hand sanitizer

Since the beginning of the H1N1 (swine flu) influenza epidemic bottles of commercial hand sanitizer have been flying off the shelves. They’re everywhere in my son’s elementary school, for example, and I’ve seen them sitting on the counter and available for customer use in stores and banks. Is that gel worth it? Does simply washing your hands work just as well?

That question has been studied, quite directly, here. The investigators tested twenty volunteers who had been vaccinated against H1N1 influenza and who had had a blood test that documented that they were immune to the infection. So they couldn’t get sick from the virus. These volunteers then had live flu virus put all over their hands, after which they washed them either with soap and water or one of several hand sanitizers. The investigators then tried to recover live virus from the volunteers’ hands, and compared the results to how much virus they could obtain from the hands of volunteers who did not do anything except air-dry their hands.

The results showed that all methods dramatically decreased the amount of virus on the hands. Seventy percent of volunteers who did not wash with anything still had virus on their hands even an hour later. All of the hand cleaning techniques worked very well, but simple soap and water actually worked the best. So sanitizer is fine if you haven’t got a sink around, but wash your hands the old fashioned way if you do.


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