Soap vs. sanitizer: One provides suds, while the other gives off a sheen. And when it comes to disease prevention, clean hands are better than the alternative. That’s one reason why the Lawrence school district provides hand sanitizer dispensers in almost all of its classrooms and encourages students and staff to use them.
“They do not take the place of soap and water,” says Sonja Gaumer, the district’s nursing services facilitator.
But if kids cough and sneeze in the classroom, she says, they can use the sanitizer in their classroom rather than making a special trip to the bathroom.
“I always prefer to use soap and water, especially after going to the bathroom,” Gaumer says. “That really cleans the hands of any visible dirt. Hand sanitizer doesn’t remove the visible dirt, but it does kill all of the bacteria and germs on your hands.”
While hand-washing is emphasized at the elementary school level — with most teachers taking classes to the bathroom before lunch to get clean — it’s not as routine as students get older, Gaumer says.
“In the secondary schools, kids aren’t stopping by the bathrooms to wash their hands before lunch. It’s their prime social time,” she says. “It’s great for them to be able to use the hand sanitizers as they leave the classrooms.”
Since the Lawrence district installed the dispensers during the 2007-2008 school year in all schools except the East Heights Early Childhood Center, Gaumer says the Blue Valley school district and others have followed suit in an effort to stop the spread of germs.
Lisa Horn, communications coordinator for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, says soap, water and singing are key to staying healthy, although hand sanitizer works, too.
“We typically recommend that hand washing is best,” she says. “It’s one thing to wash your hands; it’s another thing to wash them properly. That’s something we try to tell people to do.”
To ensure clean hands, the health department recommends using soap and warm water and lathering the hands for as long as it takes to sing the ABCs — a good guideline for kids and their parents.
But when soap and water aren’t available, Horn says hand sanitizer is a great backup.
“Using hand sanitizer is totally fine. It’s definitely better than not using either,” she says. “What you need to do with a sanitizer is rub your hands and let them dry. That’s not very long; a few seconds or so. Use it like you would soap and water — get it into all the crevices — and then let it air dry.”
Amid all the hype about the H1N1 virus, Horn says people should remember that hand-washing is important even when sneezes and coughs aren’t involved. Be sure to clean them after playing with pets or using the bathroom and before preparing food, she says.
“In public health, we tell people that hand-washing is one of the No. 1 ways to prevent illnesses,” Horn says. “It’s one of the best and cheapest prevention methods that people can use.”