Washing hands with soap and water is often thought of as one of the best things we can do to lower our chances of getting sick. But according to a new study, there's a practice that's even more effective, particularly if you're a little kid: using hand sanitizer.
Researchers in Spain have found that little kids who use hand sanitizer miss fewer days of school, have a lower risk of getting a respiratory infection and have a lower chance of being prescribed antibiotics, than kids who use good old soap and water, CNN reports.
It looks like we've been underestimating those tiny bottles of alcohol-based sanitizer this entire time.
The study, which was published earlier this week in the journal Pediatrics, involved 911 children, up to age 3, who went to 24 daycares in Almería, Spain. Researchers assigned the kids, families and their daycare centers to one of three groups for the next eight months: one that would use soap and water to clean hands, one that would use hand sanitizer, and a control group that would continue their usual hand-washing practices.
In addition to the different hand-cleansing practices, the two experimental groups also had more guidance and education about hygiene than the control group. Although all groups attended hygiene workshops, the experimental groups also attended follow-up sessions that taught them about respiratory infections, and were provided resources regarding hand hygiene as well as hygiene protocols that taught them to wash hands before and after lunch, when they arrived home, or after coughing, sneezing or blowing their noses, according to CNN.
During the study, the kids contracted 5,211 respiratory infections and missed 5,186 days of daycare, but kids who used hand sanitizer fared the best. They missed the fewest percentage of daycare days—just 3.25 percent, compared to the soap-and-water group who missed 3.9 percent of daycare days, and the group that stuck to their their typical hand-washing routine, who missed 4.2 percent of daycare days.
Meanwhile, those who used just soap and water were 21 percent more likely to catch a respiratory infection, like a runny nose, congestion or a sore throat, and were 23 percent more likely to be prescribed antibiotics, than those who used hand sanitizer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the proper way to wash hands is under running water that's warm or cold. After applying soap, create a lather that covers your entire hand, including between your fingers and under your nails. Then scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds (or length of time it takes you take to hum "Happy Birthday" to your self twice). Finally, rinse your hands, and dry them with a towel or air dryer.
Although the CDC says that soap and water are the best way to reduce the number of germs on the hand in most situations, it recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not accessible. On its site, the organization notes, "Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs and might not remove harmful chemicals."
The CDC also cautions against leaving children unattended with hand sanitizer. According to the site, "Swallowing alcohol-based hand sanitizers can cause alcohol poisoning. Keep it out of reach of young children."