Creating and maintaining a healthy environment is a top priority for building owners and operators. In their efforts to prevent the spread of germs, which can increase absenteeism, decision makers rely on soaps and sanitizers. Unfortunately, there is often confusion about which of these products is the best option.

It is up to distributors to help customers understand the differences between soaps and sanitizers and to determine which product is best suited to their environments and the facility’s unique needs.

Soaps are cleansers — they actually clean the 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., Billings, Mont.

Some distributors 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.

“Handwashing is old fashioned but it sure does work,” says David Sikes, president, Sikes Paper Co., 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 typically milder than 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 think a lot of people think sanitizers take the place of soap. No, soap will always be around and will always be the best thing to clean with.”

So why wouldn’t someone use soap? The product is not without faults. Soap is not as effective as sanitizer at killing germs (especially when used improperly), and it can only be used when water is available.

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

Unlike soap, sanitizer can be used anytime, anywhere because it does 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, just the germs that exist in the dirt. Your hands continue to be dirty, they are just germ-free.”

The Right Spot
Where should each product be used or, more important, where shouldn’t they be? For starters, 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 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 in a restroom. That’s not acceptable.”

To make soap most effective, educate end users on how to use it properly. In some cases, a constant reminder in a customers’ facility is preferable. For these users, it may be beneficial to download the CDC’s “Ounce of Prevention” poster.

The education process should 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 and their use may lead to the development of resistant bacteria, making it even hard to kill the 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’s not true, so we’ve cut way back on the amount of anti-bacterial soaps we’re selling.”

Knowing that soap should be available at every facility in as many places as possible, the next decision becomes about when and where to add sanitizer as a second option.

First and foremost, sanitizer should be offered when water is not readily available but sanitary hands are still important. For example, a doctor’s office may place a dispenser outside patient rooms so a doctor can quickly sanitize her 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 to sanitize hands.”

Schools, nursing homes, daycares, and other facilities with sensitive populations can also benefit from having sanitizer dispensers at various points between restrooms. In most other environments, wall-mounted sanitizer isn’t necessary, however, personal-use sanitizers can be offered to keep in a desk or pocket.

As with soaps, end users 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 that step, but shouldn’t replace it).

“If someone’s hands are dirty, just to sanitize 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 end user 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 trying to light the flammable product. In facilities where children are present, it 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 customers on the differences between soap and sanitizer, distributors must focus on making the sale. Buyers 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, when a competitive product costs twice as much but you get four times the hand washes, then they have done their company a disservice by trying to find the cheapest product on the market instead of the best product.”

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. We are about saving money for our customers. We’ve gone away from traditional soaps.”

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 soap and sanitizer in conjunction 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 Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to SM.