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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

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. 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 at least 60 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.

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


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