The Big Takeaway From 2020: Sanitation Matters

The Big Takeaway From 2020: Sanitation Matters

The global Covid-19 pandemic has not suddenly made sanitation important and necessary. Rather, it has revealed the gap between theory and practice for many people in the United States.


It’s reasonable to think that people understand the importance of washing their hands and cleaning their bathrooms - these things are ingrained at an early age.


But when it comes time to actually do these things, Americans are abysmal. Data from January 2020 suggests that roughly 40% of Americans don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. Furthermore, in some instances, doctors only wash their hands 50% of the time between patients.


Today, we’ll take a practical dive into sanitation. We’ll discuss the theory, the technique, and gain an overall understanding of one definite thing: that sanitation matters.



sanitary wipes

Why Sanitize?

The first question to consider is “why do we even need to sanitize at all?” The answer lies in germ theory. It may seem unthinkable today that pathogens, disease-causing agents like viruses and bacteria, were undiscovered until the late 19th century. Until then, even well-educated professionals, like doctors, believed that foul odors or spirits were the cause of disease. 


After modern acceptance of germ theory, sanitation was not far behind. It logically follows that if “germs”, i.e. bacteria and viruses, cause disease, then removing those germs would aid in removing disease. Thus began the largest increase in life expectancy in the history of human civilization.


From 1900 to 1950, American life expectancy rose almost 21 years, from 47.3 to 68.2. For comparison, in the 70 years since 1950, life expectancy has only risen 10 years, to 78.6 (and has declined minorly in recent years). 


These increases can be causally tied to better sanitation practices. Sewage systems started appearing in major cities in the early 1900s, drastically cutting infection rates of typhoid and cholera. This throughline extends all the way down to personal habits like washing vegetables and sanitizing our hands. Sanitation eliminates germs, and eliminating germs eliminates disease. 

Practical Sanitation

We all know that washing our hands is healthy. We recognize that washing dishes between uses is beneficial. But why are these things necessary and good? Let’s dive into the practical and basic science reasons behind healthy hand sanitation practices. 



soapy hands

Hand Washing

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, news coverage and PSAs to wash our hands have been everywhere. In case you fall into the 95% of people who don’t wash their hands correctly, here is a rundown according to the CDC:

  1. Wet your hands under the sink, turn off the water.
  2. Lather and scrub hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. 
  3. Rinse hands clean, dry. 

Simple, right? The science behind why washing your hands is so effective is rather simple, as well. Unless you are using antibacterial soap, the point of handwashing is not to kill germs.


The point of handwashing is to physically remove germs from your skin. The molecules of soap do two jobs very well: bind to water molecules and bind to dirt and germ particles. This is why actively scrubbing and lathering for at least 20 seconds is so important: the soap doesn’t kill pathogens, you have to scrub them off. 



hand sanitizer

Hand Sanitization

Hand sanitizer, on the other hand, works by a completely different mechanism. Assuming you can actually get your hands on a bottle, the process to effectively use hand sanitizer is mostly similar to handwashing, but with some key differences. According to the CDC:

  1. Ensure your hands are clean, not dirty, greasy, or oily. 
  2. Squeeze a small dollop of hand sanitizer into your hand.
  3. Rub around all parts and corners of your hands, making sure the sanitizer touches your entire skin surface.

This process seems extremely similar to handwashing at first, but there is one key difference contained in step 1: your hands must already be clean.


Herein lies the key biological difference: hand sanitizer actually works to kill the bacteria, not simply remove them like soap. The presence of oils and dirt on your skin prevent the ethanol within the hand sanitizer to interact with bacteria and viruses, so they stay on our skin, alive.


This is part of the reason why hand sanitizer, however convenient it may be on the go, should serve as a supplement, rather than a substitute, to handwashing. 



sanitary gloves


Many of us have likely seen people wearing gloves out and about. There isn’t anything wrong with that per se, but many, many people use gloves incorrectly.


Think of it this way. If you were to put on gloves to cut raw chicken, would you remove them before cutting fruit? The same principle applies to proper and safe glove use. Bacteria and viruses, Covid-19 included, don’t make their way into your body via your hands. The problem is when viral particles on your hands make their way onto your face, nose, and mouth. 


The benefit of gloves is that they serve as a quick and easy way to have clean hands, by removing the gloves. But if you touch your face while wearing gloves, they won’t magically protect your from getting sick, and they can contribute to a false sense of security.


“I was in Trader Joe’s, and I saw plenty of people wearing gloves, but they were touching their keys, their carts, their food — and their faces,” says Dr. Niket Sonpal, assistant clinical professor at Touro College of Medicine in New York. “Though it gives you a sense of security, scientifically it’s not helping.”

Please, Sanitize

Today we covered hand sanitization, but volumes have been written on the sanitization of other important surfaces. Now, more than ever, we’re seeing that proper hygiene and cleanliness not only helps us live in a less-gross world, but it can actually save lives.


The Covid-19 pandemic may change many things in our day-to-day lives in the long run, and hopefully one of those changes is an ingrained understanding that sanitation matters. 



Article written by Patrick O'Hare on May 12, 2020.

Cover image courtesy of Undraw.

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