Soaps and sanitizer

Today’s business climate has building service contractors (BSCs) in a lather about soap management. Skyrocketing supply costs plus pressure from clients to curb spending have some BSCs targeting restroom expendables to maximize savings — all without sacrificing hand hygiene. For BSCs, this is yet another front in the ongoing battle to balance effectiveness and efficiency. 

Indeed, hand hygiene is still considered one of the best defenses against the spread of infection, which is why experts advise BSCs to be cautious when considering cost-cutting measures in restrooms. Reducing a shot of hand soap, for example, not only compromises hand hygiene, but sends the wrong message to users about the facility, says Jim Mann, executive director of The Handwashing for Life Institute, Destin, Florida. 

“When you look at reducing supply costs by 3 percent or 5 percent as a way to lower the contract, you’re missing the big picture,” he says. “You want to do everything you can to encourage people to wash their hands, so make sure you keep the user experience in mind and try to make it more effective and efficient.” 

Foam Sweet Foam 

Before zeroing in on hand soap and dispenser options that are likely to counter waste, Mann advises BSCs to meet with clients and discuss their expectations for the building and its occupants. 

“Find out what the facility means to management and how important cleanliness of the hands is to their business,” Mann adds. “How is that building used? Are visitors going to be using the restroom more than once during their visit? Once you have some key insights, keep them in mind as you prioritize quality and look for ways to cut costs.” 

Today, many facilities opt for automatic soap dispensers to control the variables that lead to overuse and wasted product. Unlike manual dispensers, where users tend to press the pump two to three times, automatic variants are less likely to be activated more than once per hand wash — provided that the unit allots an adequate amount of soap. 

However, what constitutes the right amount of soap is debatable. Industry experts opine that there is no ideal volume, and the amount of soap necessary varies depending on the type of soil being addressed. Tenants in an office building, for example, will require less soap per hand wash than factory workers or kitchen staff who may contend with grease, oils and heavy soil. 

In addition to favoring automatic dispensers, consultants often suggest the use of foam soap over gel, citing its cost-savings benefits in the long run. 

“In the hand hygiene world, we always prefer and recommend foam hand soap because you get more mileage out of it and better coverage,” says Ken Horton, a consultant with Project One, Littleton, Colorado. “Not only does that lower the cost, but it does what it’s designed to do, which is remove dirt and germs from your hands.” 

Like Horton, Mann prefers foam soap because it aids the handwashing process and less is required to get the job done. 

“Overall, when you use foam soap, you’re pre-spreading it, and when you move it around your hands it sticks rather than running off,” says Mann. “It also rinses cleanly, which is important because you don’t want any soap residue left on your hands.” 

When Life Gives You Gel 

Although the upfront cost of gel or liquid soap is cheaper compared to foam varieties, consultants agree that gel is more likely to be wasted, resulting in a greater cost per use as well as poor hand hygiene. Furthermore, gel soap often ends up on floors and countertops, creating more work for custodians. 

“Gel tends to hit the palm of the hand and then sometimes falls off into the sink or onto the floor, so dwell time and proper coverage is an issue,” notes Horton. “You’re supposed to wash your hands for 20 seconds, but how many people really do that?” 

Horton found similar issues with gel hand sanitizer. By switching customers from gel to foam, the hand sanitizer provided better coverage and dwell time, and resulted in less wasted product. Horton also found a cost-effective way to make the switch. By shipping gallons of liquid hand sanitizer to customers and replacing the screw-on caps with pumps that generated foam. 

“Soap and hand sanitizer has surfactant in it, and surfactant is the key to making foam,” he explains. “So, if you have surfactant — which you always do — it becomes a matter of finding the right pump to turn it into foam.” 

Whenever possible, Horton sets up foam hand sanitizer stations for customers, particularly in schools. 

“A gallon lasts much longer, and it’s easier to have 20 students go through the station without running out of product or making a mess on the floor,” he says. “Plus, the foam does a better job of covering their hands.” 

Today, more and more BSCs and their customers opt for sealed cartridge systems and foam soap in place of bulk gel soap dispensers, which are susceptible to cross-contamination. And although cartridges are more expensive and lock customers into a brand, they purportedly save end users time and improve the handwashing experience. Additionally, BSCs are more likely to save on labor costs associated with refilling dispensers. Foam soap tends to last longer, resulting in less frequent cartridge changes. Furthermore, cartridges are quick and easy to replace.  

In contrast, bulk soap systems are messier and take more time to replenish. Because these systems are seldom cleaned, soap residue builds up on the dispensing tips and levers, and this can harbor bacteria, according to David Thompson, director of the Academy of Cleaning Excellence, Orlando, Florida. Soap buildup can also interfere with the function of the dispenser, causing leakage that further contributes to waste. 

Thompson’s restroom hygiene class teaches students to check and clean the dispenser and lever, whether the unit dispenses gel or foam.  

“Custodians usually clean what they can see, but I focus on what you can’t see, which is the back of the lever,” says Thompson. “That’s where your fingertips go, and they tend to have soap on them.” 

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Hand Hygiene Habits Pivotal to Successful Soap Setups