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Hand sanitizers vs handwashing in food service facilities

Handwashing with soap and water is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses - the major causes of foodborne illness. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective in killing bacteria and some viruses on clean hands. However, sanitizers may not be used instead of handwashing by foodservice employees.

Handwashing comes first

The hands of food workers are often wet and often contaminated with fatty material or with food high in proteins. The presence of water, food, fatty materials, feces and blood on hands can significantly reduce the effectiveness of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Viruses such as norovirus are also a concern in foodservice settings. Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne outbreaks. Most hand sanitizers do not kill norovirus.

Soap and water washing is the most effective way to remove the types of pathogens that food workers have on their hands. In order for hand sanitizers to work properly, hands must first be washed with soap, rinsed with running water and completely dried. The Minnesota Food Code requires handwashing with soap and water in food service establishments.

Hand sanitizing can be done next

The FDA Food Code and the Minnesota Food Code allow the use of hand sanitizers by food workers only after proper handwashing. In addition to providing handwashing facilities stocked with soap and water, food service establishments may provide hand sanitizer to their customers but is not required.

Follow these steps for proper handwashing and hand sanitizing

  1. Wash hands in designated hand sink. Wet hands with warm water. Apply soap. Lather, scrub and use a fingernail brush for 20 seconds. Rinse. Dry hands with paper towel. Turn off faucet with the towel.

  2. Select a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.

  3. Apply a dime-size amount of sanitizer on the palm of one hand.

  4. Rub hands together vigorously for 30 seconds covering all surfaces of both hands. If hands are dry after only 10-15 seconds, not enough sanitizer was used and more must be applied.

  5. Wait for the sanitizer to dry completely before touching food contact surfaces.

Kathy Brandt, Extension food safety educator and Suzanne Driessen, Extension food safety educator

Reviewed in 2021

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