But when soap and a sink aren't close by, people rely on the convenience of hand sanitizer.
Sales of the disinfecting gel are soaring, up more than 70 percent since this time last year, according to research by the Nielsen Company.
Casey Beard is a self-proclaimed "germ freak" who uses hand sanitizer up to 40 times a day. He keeps bottles in his bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and car. He even went as far as purchasing hand sanitizer for colleagues at his office. While he's always been wary of germs, reports of the H1N1 virus have made him even more diligent about hygiene.
"I hate shaking people's hands who I know are sick, but if they're not visibly sick or audibly sick, I'm completely OK with it -- because I have hand sanitizer everywhere," he said.
He uses it most frequently when commuting to work or traveling, but he's even careful to use it in his own car.
"The second I get in the car, I like to do a squirt there and rub it on my steering wheel," he said.
His methods may seem excessive, but it's hard to argue with the result.
"I haven't been sick in three years," said Beard.
Sandra Turco is the mother of two daughters, and she keeps the hand sanitizer close at all times.
In the wake of the H1N1 flu outbreak, she's focused on keeping her family healthy. She reminds her eight-year-old daughter to use hand sanitizer during the school day, especially before recess and when she gets off the school bus.
Turco's daughter Allesandra is well trained.
"She said use it a lot," Allesandra said. "It's sort of a pain because mommy always tells me to."
"We have not been sick, knock on wood," said Turco. "So far, we've had a lot of friends who have had the H1N1 [virus], so we were exposed to them. And I'm not sure if it was the hand sanitizer that did it, but we're still healthy and going strong."
Business Is Booming for Hand Sanitizer Market
Hand sanitizers aren't just good hygiene, they're also good business. Sales of the disinfectants total $118.4 million, up from $69.4 million a year ago. It's creating a cottage industry for clever entrepreneurs.
Dewey Parson and Mark Montopoli are the creators of StaSafe, a hand sanitizer that relies on silver and zinc instead of alcohol to kill germs. Parsons had been in the beer business, and Montopoli ran a seafood processing plant.
When they launched the Salem, Mass., company, they found they weren't the only ones looking to make a dollar in hand hygiene.
"Our biggest problem was getting bottles and caps," said Montopoli. "The industry is so overwhelmed with people that wanted to get in to the business that you couldn't get in to the business."
But eventually, they got in and got busy. They initially hoped to sell around 10,000 bottles, but just weeks in, sales have topped 40,000 units.
"It is because people are very aware that they need to sanitize and have good hand hygiene," said Parsons. "H1N1 is good for our business, but we'd like to think that we help people [fight] against it and stay clear and safe and well."
While much of the economy may be lagging, this industry is clearly cleaning up.
"Since H1N1 emerged in the spring of 2009, an enormous amount of attention has been paid to effective hygiene practices," said Brian Sansoni, vice president of communications at the Soap and Detergent Association. "That's why products like hand sanitizers are so useful."
Most experts agree that keeping hands clean is the best way to stay healthy, especially during cold and flu season.
According to Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University, the best thing about hand sanitizer is its portability.
"Soap and water works wonderfully, but we are a society in a rush," he said. "If you are out and about and shaking hands, you can use it right away. People are so used to it that they will share it."
Hand Sanitizer As Effective as Washing
While there have been concerns that germs become resistant to antibacterial soaps, Schaffner said germs don't become resistant to alcohol, the main ingredient in many popular hand sanitizers.
While hand sanitizer is safe and effective for use throughout the day, including before and after using the restroom, people should always wash their hands using soap and water before preparing food.
Hand sanitizer is even safe for children, though they should be old enough to understand not to ingest it.
However you choose to keep your hands clean throughout the day, what really counts is the technique. The Centers for Disease Control recommend washing hands for a full 20 seconds. That's approximately the time it would take to sing the alphabet or "Happy Birthday," both of which can be used to teach children proper hand washing.
When using hand sanitizers, it's important to use enough that it takes 15 to 20 seconds for the gel to dry. When used correctly, hand sanitizer and hand washing can have equal results.