Soap And Water

Tips For Healthy Hands

By Jenny Good

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2007.

The multitude of soap types available to consumers today—brawny deodorant soap, delicately floral luxury soaps, handcrafted and cut soaps, liquid soaps, vegan soap, and even caffeinated soap—can transform this utilitarian cleanser from a sink-top necessity to a sensual treat, a home accessory, or a thoughtful gift. No matter the shape, scent, formula, or price, soaps clean skin by removing dirt, soil, and germs from the surface and preventing the spread of diseases. The key in this cleansing process, however, isn’t entirely in the soap’s formula but in the friction used while washing.

The recent proliferation of products on the market can be confusing. Which one is best? Why? Understanding soap basics will protect you and those around you from the spread of infections. A few common questions are answered below to demystify this simple process of sanitation.

Does The Type Of Soap I Use Matter?

No and yes. From the standpoint of cleanliness, the amount of time you spend lathering up and washing is more important than the type of soap being used. A recent article in the Harvard Health Letter (January 2007) summarized that washing hands with plain old soap and water for thirty seconds leads to a drop in bacterial counts by close to 99.9 percent; most of us, though, wash for only five seconds.

From the standpoint of sensitivities to ingredients, yes, soap matters. Common additives include moisturizers (useful for those of us with particularly dry skin) and fragrances (which, while invigorating or soothing for some, are inappropriate for young children or individuals prone to allergic reactions). Other chemicals, like triclosan, the active ingredient in most liquid and bar antibacterial soaps, help kill germs, but have also been shown to lead to bacterial resistance.

Do Hand Sanitizers Clean In The Same Way As Soap?

No. According to the Soap and Detergent Association (, sanitizers, which are often alcohol-based, clean the skin by killing germs on the skin’s surface, but they don’t actually remove dirt. These gels and wipes are often very convenient and are available in pocket size or single-use packaging, making them particularly useful when soap and water are not available. Sanitizers destroy bacteria and some viruses, but as with other cleansers, it is imperative that all of the hands’ surfaces (between the fingers, the fingertips, thumbs, front and back of hands, and under nails) are covered with the substance. More than one squirt from the bottle will usually be necessary to truly sanitize your hands.

Why Is Drying My Hands Necessary?

Dry hands are less likely to spread germs than wet hands. While alcohol-based sanitizers air dry quickly, it takes a few extra moments to dry thoroughly after washing with soap and water. Be sure to reach for a clean towel or spend some quality time with your hands under a dryer.