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Hand Sanitizer vs. Hand Washing: Which Is More Effective on a Plane?

While washing your hands in the tiny airport bathroom, you may have noticed a little sign by the sink telling you not to drink from the tap. If airplane water isn’t potable, does washing your hands in it really make them any cleaner? I asked an expert to find out.

Hand Sanitizer vs. Hand Washing on a Plane

According to the CDC, it’s recommended to “Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash your hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.”

Janilyn Hutchings, a Certified Professional in Food Safety and food safety specialist of, weighs in: “In general, washing your hands in non-potable water isn’t very effective in cleaning your hands. The three crucial ingredients of good handwashing are using soap, scrubbing for 15 seconds, and rinsing in clean water. When clean water is available, always wash your hands with soap and water—it’s much more effective in killing germs than using sanitizer. However, if you know for a fact clean water is unavailable, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer may be your best option.”

If you’re on an aircraft that has potable water, washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water would be the best option. If the water isn’t safe to drink, you’re better off using hand sanitizer after using the restroom.

Don’t forget to use hand sanitizer before you eat on a plane and to disinfect your airplane tray and seat. You’ve likely picked up germs from the seatbelt, arm rest, tray table, and TV screen. Using hand sanitizer will give you clean hands without having to get up.

According to the CDC, alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing 60 to 95 percent alcohol are the most effective. Purell is a good option. Rub the sanitizer over all the surfaces of your hands, front and back, until your hands are dry. Here is a list of products pre-approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “for use against emerging enveloped viral pathogens.”

Products to Help You Stay Healthy While Traveling

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer

Whip up a batch of DIY hand sanitizer with household items already in your medicine cabinet. Want more expert tips and vacation inspiration? Subscribe to SmarterTravel on YouTube!

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for travel inspiration.   

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

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