Creating and maintaining a healthy environment is a top priority for building owners and operators. In their efforts to prevent the spread of germs, reduce absenteeism and improve the overall health of workers within the facility, cleaning managers rely on soaps and sanitizers as a way for employees to disinfect on their own. Unfortunately, there is often confusion about which of these products is the best option to fight against germs.

In-house cleaning mangers often look to their distributor as a resource to help understand the subtle differences between soaps and sanitizers, as well as determine which product is best suited for their environments and the facility’s unique needs. Distributors comment that the distinction is actually quite easy.

Soaps are cleansers — they actually clean hands by removing dirt and grime. Sanitizers, on the other hand, kill germs but do not clean. While this may seem like a minor distinction, the products actually are worlds apart.

“Many people think of soaps and sanitizers as one-in-the-same, but they are not,” says Joshua Kraft, sales manager and education coordinator for Bruco Inc., a distributor in Billings, Mont.

Some experts actually recommend using the products in a two-step process, while others advise using them separately, depending on the particular need.

What everyone agrees on, however, is the importance of regular hand washing with soap and water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most important thing people can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness is to clean their hands.

“Hand washing seems old fashioned but it sure does work,” says David Sikes, president of Sikes Paper Co. in Atlanta. “I wash my hands about 20 times a day and I haven’t had a cold in a long time.”

Different By Design
Washing hands with soap and water is a tried-and-true method that — when done correctly — is effective at killing most bacteria. Soap is also typically milder than a hand sanitizer — which usually contains alcohol — so it is safe for most people to use.

“Soap has been cleaning since before your mother was born,” says Charles E. Barnes, Sr., president of Memphis Chemical and Janitorial Supply, Memphis, Tenn. “It’s an old solution that continues to work. I’d venture to guess that a lot of people think that sanitizers can take the place of soap, but it’s just not true. Soap will always be around and will always be the best thing to clean with.”

That said, even this tried and true method of cleaning is not without its faults. Soap is not as effective as sanitizers when it comes to killing germs (especially when used improperly), and it can only be used when water is available.

More abrasive varieties of soap can also damage the skin unless used in combination with a moisturizer.

Unlike soap, sanitizers can be used anytime, anywhere because they do not require water. Also, most commercial sanitizers are 99.9 percent effective at killing germs.

On the downside, sanitizer contains alcohol, which can irritate skin (although most brands include ingredients to prevent dryness). Also, the product is designed to perform just one function — to kill germs, not clean.

“It’s a giant misconception that sanitizers can clean hands,” Sikes says. “You do not remove the dirt by using hand sanitizers. You just get rid of the germs that exist in the dirt. Your hands continue to be dirty, they are just germ-free.”

The Right Spot
With obvious benefits to each of these products, there is some debate surrounding where the use of each product will be most beneficial, as well as when it should be avoided.

Distributors agree that soap should be available in every restroom and any other cleaning station where water is present (each area should also be equipped with paper towels or hand dryers).

“There’s no replacement for soap,” Barnes says. “You must have it in every environment. I’ve seen offices with sanitizer in the soap dispenser within a restroom. That’s not acceptable.”

To make soap most effective, it is important to educate the cleaning staff on how to use it properly. In some cases, a constant reminder within the facility is preferable. Some cleaning departments might benefit from the CDC’s “Ounce of Prevention” poster available at

The education process should also include a discussion of antibacterial soaps, which many users believe are better cleaners. In fact, antibacterial soaps are no more effective at killing germs than regular soap and water. Some experts also comment that their use may even lead to the development of resistant bacteria, making it even more difficult to kill germs in the future.

“Antibacterial soap is vastly overused in the general marketplace,” Sikes says. “It became en vogue because people thought they were doing a better job by offering it. Clearly we have now found that to be untrue, so we’ve cut way back on the amount of anti-bacterial soaps we’re selling.”

Once cleaning managers realize that it is essential to provide soap in as many places as possible throughout the facility, they can then look to sanitizers as a second option. Experts comment that proper placement of hand sanitizers is important and cleaning managers should understand the needs within the facility before designating sanitizing stations.

First and foremost, sanitizers should be offered in areas where water is not readily available but sanitary hands are still important.

For example, a physician’s office may place a dispenser outside patient rooms so doctors can quickly sanitize their hands between patients, without having to spend the extra time going to a restroom to wash up.

“In the best-case scenario we would like to always properly and thoroughly wash our hands, but in some instances access to water is not available,” Sikes says. “In those cases, sanitizers are a wonderful back-up method.”

Schools, nursing homes, day care centers, and other facilities with sensitive populations can also benefit from having sanitizer dispensers at various points between hand-washing stations. In most other environments, sanitizer stations are not necessary, however, some departments might choose to offer desk- or pocket-sized sanitizers for employee use.

As with soaps, cleaning workers should be educated about how to use sanitizers. They must learn that sanitizing is not a substitute for hand washing; if their hands are visibly dirty, washing with soap and water is essential (sanitizing can follow, but shouldn’t replace it).

“If a worker’s hands are dirty, just sanitizing them is short-sighted,” Sikes says. “Sanitizers are not a panacea, but they do fill a void.”

Sanitizers are inappropriate in any environment where an employee may misuse the product. The population in a prison or homeless shelter, for example, could abuse the alcohol-based product by ingesting it or by using it as a flammable accelerant. In facilities where children are present, sanitizers should be placed out of their reach and used only with adult supervision. Alternatives to ingestible sanitizers include wipes or lotion-based products.

“The most important thing for a needs-sensitive facility is to find a product that works best for their situation,” says Dave Smetzer, sales manager for Capital Sanitary in Des Moines, Iowa.

Latest And Greatest
After educating the cleaning staff on the differences between soap and sanitizer, managers must focus on purchasing the best product for their need. Cleaning managers are often most concerned about the price tag and go with the cheapest product, assuming soap is soap. But there are varying degrees of quality, even with a simple product like soap.

“Most people look at the cost first, then quality,” Smetzer says. “You can buy a case of soap cheap but if you only get 1,000 hand washes per case, as appose to a competitive product that might cost twice as much but gives you four times the hand washes, then managers have done their company a disservice by trying to find the cheapest instead of the best product on the market.”

Cost-per-use may explain the recent surge in popularity of foam soap. This newer delivery method uses less soap to wash hands. It is also more effective because it can easily get into all the cracks and crevices of the hand.

“We have moved about 80 percent of our customers to foam soap,” Barnes says. “It is by far the best soap to use as it relates to saving money.”

Although hand sanitizers are a relatively recent invention, manufacturers are already coming up with new delivery systems for the product. In addition to gel, the product is now available in foam and misting spray. These systems promise better coverage with less product.

“It’s a more cost-effective method and it works better,” Sikes says. “We’re always trying to find ways to add value.”

Whatever brand or type of soap and sanitizer a facility offers, the key is to find a system that works. Very often, that means using both soap and sanitizer to keep hands clean and germ-free.

Barnes keeps a bottle of sanitizer on his desk. He washes his hands as often as possible, but he recognizes there are times he can’t get away to do it.

Sikes frequently uses the sanitizer on his hands, as well as on his phone’s mouthpiece and his keyboard.

“Whenever someone comes into my office to meet with me, I take my sanitizer out as soon as they leave,” Barnes says. “But if I’m near a bathroom, I’ll always go wash my hands instead.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. A version of this article was originally published in Sanitary Maintenance, a sister publication to Housekeeping Solutions, in June 2007.