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Soap vs. Hand Sanitizer: How They Work & Which is Best

The two methods work totally differently. This very simple story explains how, and why you don’t want to overly rely on one of them.

Robert Roy Britt
3 min readApr 9, 2020


Someone asked me the other day which is better at killing the coronavirus, soap or hand sanitizer. That’s actually the wrong question. So, while describing the difference, I realized a simple explainer might be helpful for everyone. This won’t take long (the long, sciencey explanations are in the links, with all the expert input and supportive research from the CDC and others).

How soap works

Regular soap, regardless of the ingredients, is designed to separate dirt, grease and whatever else is on your skin from your skin.

“Regular soaps don’t necessarily kill bacteria and viruses as much as they simply help you wash them off your skin,” explains Gabriel Rangel, a PhD candidate in biological sciences at Harvard University. Other researchers say soap can effectively deactivate a virus by removing the greasy coating the virus uses to bind to human cells; others say soap actually forces open the envelopes of a virus, or dissolves the membrane, so it spills its guts. Either way, the bubbles of soap, along with vigorous scrubbing of all parts of your hands and fingers, lift viruses (and other germs) from your skin so they can be rinsed down the drain.

Scrubbing and rinsing are vital steps in the ritual. Two renditions of Happy Birthday, well, you know. But if you sing off-key, nobody really wants to hear that. Please instead just count one-thousand-one to 20.

For the record, it does not matter if you use hot or cold water when you wash with soap. Research shows this (thank the volunteers who, in the name of science, had their hands purposely covered in germs to help figure this out).

If you’re not totally bored with hand-washing admonitions and the reasons why it’s so important, you can check out my deeper explanation on how it works and the fact that, wait for it… Only 5% of People Wash Their Hands Properly.

How alcohol-based hand sanitizers work



Robert Roy Britt

Founder/editor of Wise & Well on Medium & the Writer's Guide at & author of Make Sleep Your Superpower