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Survival Basics: Hand & Surface Hygiene When There’s No Water to Spare

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Survival Basics: Hand & Surface Hygiene When There’s No Water to Spare

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Much has been written about the need for drinking water in a survival situation.  And luckily, most people have gotten the message and either store extra water in barrels, have cases or jugs of bottled water, or have a source of fresh water that can be made ready for drinking with filters, chemicals, or bleach.

Not as frequently mentioned, although of equal importance, is the need to have water to use for washing your hands.  The use of good old-fashioned soap and water is the tried and true way to get rid of the germs lurking in our environment.  In fact, the National Institute of Health reports that it is the MOST effective way to get rid of disease-causing bacteria, and the CDC concurs regarding its effectiveness.

Hand and Surface Hygiene When There's No Water to Spare | Backdoor Survival

But what if there’s no water to spare?

There are some situations during which water could be so scarce that every drop must be used for consumption.

Cleanliness doesn’t have to go by the wayside.

The good news is that there is an arsenal of other products that can be used to exterminate those nasty microbes and maintain good hand and surface hygiene when there’s no water to spare for anything other than drinking purposes.

Hand Sanitizer:  Alcohol based sanitizing gels kill 99% of bacteria on contact.  These gels are inexpensive, light weight, have a long shelf life and are cinch to use.  For maximum effectiveness, apply the hand sanitizer to one palm then rub hands together until they are dry, making sure you cover all parts of your hands and fingers.

What’s not to like?  Well, for one thing, you need to know what you are using.  Look carefully at the label before you purchase a hand sanitizer and make sure the active ingredients include ethyl alcohol, ethanol, isopropanol, or some other variation of these item.  The other important thing is to make  sure that whichever of those alcohols is listed, its concentration is between 60 and 95 percent. Less than that isn’t enough to be effective.

Beware, also of homemade hand sanitizers.  Unless the concentration of alcohol is 60% or more, don’t count on it for protection.

There’s quite a buzz about our zeal for antibacterial hand sanitizers actually causing more issues with our immune systems than they solve, as bacteria evolve and become resistant to the chemicals. I believe that’s true for chronic users of hand sanitizer in normal times, but in a scenario during which you can’t practice normal hand hygiene or there is a contagious illness going around, hand sanitizers can be vital to your continued health.

Moist Hand Towelettes:  Those little towelettes that come in individually wrapped packets are great in that you can carry them in a pocket, a wallet, or even tucked in to your hiking boots.  Just make sure that the active ingredient meets the 60% or more alcohol criteria.  One of my favorites are these from Purell.

Warning:  These towelettes do have a shelf life. This is due to the packaging.  The last thing you want to do is to store away a case of these little packets for SHTF only to open one up and find it is dried up. Or worse, it may clean your hands but not get rid of the germs.  A good rule of thumb is that they will stay viable for two years.  Keep that in mind if you are purchasing in quantity.

Antibacterial Soap: Nope. Don’t pay extra for antibacterial soaps.  They are no better than regular soap and are rumored to promote bacterial resistance.  Colleen Rogers, a leading microbiologist at the FDA, said, ” In fact, there currently is no evidence that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.”  Why spend the extra money?

In a crisis, it isn’t just our hands that will need to be cleaned. Food preparation areas, toilet or latrine seats, and frequently touched places like door knobs, for example, are all places where germs and disease can lurk. Here are some options for cleaning those surfaces.

Household Disinfectant Wipes:  I am not a big fan of household disinfectant wipes. They are expensive and also environmentally unfriendly, since they are typically over packaged and are good for a single use only.  These wipes remove bacteria but do not kill it.  That means if you use a wipe on a germy surface, it needs to be tossed immediately, since  using it again on a second surface would merely spread the germs around. Despite the shortcomings, in a completely grid down scenario, these wipes can be useful.

Bleach:  For general household sanitation, chlorine bleach is a winner.  A good dilution is about 3/4 of a teaspoon per quart of water.  More than that is a waste and not necessarily better.  Just be careful or you might accidentally tie dye your clothing, your towels, and your carpeting with splatters of bleach.  Also be sure to rinse well since bleach is very caustic.

Tip:  Pour some bleach in to a refillable, leak proof squeeze bottle and keep it under your sink.  You can easily mix up a batch of bleach and water in a small cup for immediate use without fear of drips or spills – and without a lot of waste.

Vinegar:  The Heinz corporation says that straight 5% vinegar will kill 80% of the germs and virus. Heinz says they can’t make the claim on the bottle that it kills bacteria because of the EPA laws.  As silly as it seems, the EPA requires disinfectants to be registered as a pesticide.  Still, in a survival situation, vinegar is great to have on hand since it can be used in many different ways.  It is less caustic than bleach and does not loose potency over time.

Essential Oils:  Many essential oils have potent anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.  This includes readily available lavender, oregano, melaleuca (tea tree), and lemon essential oils.  These oils can be mixed in a salve or with some witch hazel or aloe vera gel to produce an effective hand sanitizer.  For more information, read DIY Antiviral Sanitizing Spray: When Hand Sanitizer is Not Enough.

OK, I get it.  We need to sanitize.  But what about those germs?

Germs are found all over the world, in all kinds of places. The four major types are bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.

Not all germs will make us sick but a lot of them are detrimental to our health and some may even cause death.  Here is a simple primer.

Bacteria: These are tiny, one-celled creatures that get nutrients from their environments in order to live. In some cases that environment is a human body. Bacteria can reproduce outside of the body or within the body as they cause infections. Some illnesses from infectious bacteria include sore throats (tonsillitis or strep throat), ear infections, cavities, and pneumonia.  To further complicate things. not all bacteria are bad. For example, good bacteria live in our intestines and help us use the nutrients in the food we eat and make waste from what’s left over.

Viruses:  A virus needs to be inside living cells to grow and reproduce. The place where a virus lives is called a “host”. In both humans and animals, viruses can get inside the body where they grow and spread, causing sickness.  Viruses cause chickenpox, measles, flu, and many other diseases.

Fungi:  These are multi-celled, plant-like organisms that get their nutrition from plants, people, and animals. They like to live in damp, warm places, and while many fungi are not dangerous to healthy people, they can still cause health problems. An example of something caused by fungi is athlete’s foot.

Protozoa:  These are one-cell organisms that love moisture and often spread diseases through water. Some protozoa cause intestinal infections that lead to diarrhea, nausea, and belly pain.

Bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa – a motley crew that is best avoided if you want to maintain your health in a less than sanitary, survival situation. The very best way to avoid these germs is to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 15 seconds.  But if water, or soap  is not available, please use hand sanitizer, wipes, rubbing alcohol or even some bleach and water to clean your hands.

Do it every time you cough or sneeze, before you eat or prepare foods, after you use the bathroom, after dealing with hygiene for children (wiping or diaper changes), after you touch animals or pets, and after you touch objects in a public place.

Good hygiene can protect you from disease

When public utilities and sanitation systems go down, germs breed and spread rapidly.  Remember Katrina?  What about the Haiti earthquake?  Maintaining your personal cleanliness and hygiene is going to be key to ensuring your safety, your health, and your ability to fend for yourself.

But even more important is the need to make keeping your hands clean a habit day in and day out.  Everyday.  The movie Contagion  notwithstanding, the likelihood of a global pandemic is real.  It happened for centuries with Smallpox, it happened in 1918 with the Spanish flu, and in more recent times, it happened with SARS, the swine H1N1 flu, and Ebola.  Who’s to say when it will happen again?

In a true pandemic, a virus can infect people on every continent with lightening speed,  In the United States, we would like to think that CDC and our nation’s top security agencies will have protocols in place when that happens but push come to shove, we cannot rely on that level of support.

It is really up to you to be prepared and increase your chance of survival by practicing good hygiene and stocking up on hand sanitizers, bleach, and sanitizing towelettes now.  Get used to washing your hands frequently and be sure to incorporate other sanitation methods into your daily life so that they become a habit.

The Final Word

Steering clear of the things that can spread germs is the best way to protect yourself. But when contact with germs, and what I call the cooties, is unavoidable, being prepared is your best line of defense.

This topic is so important that I write about it often and each time I do, my research brings fresh insight to the far-reaching topic of hand and surface hygiene. One thing is certain.  If the world goes to heck, I am going to do my darnedest to avoid germs and remain healthy.

Below you will find a couple of other items that I can heartily recommend.  As you shop for hand sanitizers, be sure to check the total price with shipping if applicable.  Sometimes a low price is not such a great deal if the shipping is not free.  On the other hand, sometimes the price plus shipping is less than the price of a “free shipping” item.  Not to belabor the point, but I do want you to be aware.

No Rinse Cleansing & Deodorizing Bathing Wipes: One wipe was more than enough for a complete “bath”. These are a good backup when traditional showers are not available such as the week or weeks following a disaster. Also good for camping, boating, hiking and such.  To read more, see  Review: No-Rinse Personal Hygiene Products.

No Rinse Moisturizing Body Wash: This stuff leaves your skin feeling fresh and clean with a delicate scent.

No Rinse Shampoo: This product has great reviews and lots of positive testimonials. Alas, it did not work for me.

NOW Foods Essential Oils:  I use essential oils from Spark Naturals.  For healing purposes, I feel they are superior.  On the other hand, NOW Foods has decent essential oils at a budget price.  Here are a few to consider:  Oregano, Lavender, and Tea Tree.

Thayers Witch Hazel:  This is the brand I use; you simply cannot beat the price.

Hand Sanitizer Gels: Alcohol-based hand sanitizer gels kill 99% of bacterial on contact.  They are inexpensive and easy to use.

PURELL Sanitizing Hand Wipes Individually Wrapped 100-ct. Box:  I prefer individually wrapped sanitizing wipes because they are easy to carry in a pocket, back or travel kit.  As long as they meet the 60% or more alcohol criteria, the brand should not be important. Note, however, that packets such as these have a limited shelf life; two years max.

The Survival Medicine Handbook: A Guide for When Help is Not on the Way: This book teaches how to deal with all the likely medical issues you will face in a disaster situation, including strategies to keep your family healthy even in the worse scenarios. It covers skills such as performing a physical exam, transporting the injured patient, and even how to suture a wound. This medical reference belongs in every survival library.


Lemongrass is an amazing essential oil with so many uses for health and wellness.
23 Awesome Uses for Lemongrass Essential Oil23 Awesome Uses for Lemongrass Essential Oil - Backdoor Survival

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10 Responses to “Survival Basics: Hand & Surface Hygiene When There’s No Water to Spare”

  1. You said that the waterless shampoo you used didn’t work well for you. There are other brands and what I discovered worked pretty well was the kind that come in a shower cap style. You just warm the cap (comfort measure, not necessary) and put it on your head and massage away. Its not as good as regular shampoo and water but it is pretty good. I learned about these while working in a hospital. A medical supply place should be able to suggest some.

  2. Gaye, I was recently introduced to a company called Norwex, and their silver infused micro-fiber (1/200 the diameter of a human hair) products. The signature product is a cleaning cloth called the enviro cloth. When used according to directions, this cloth removes 99% of bacteria from a surface and self sanitizes as it dries because the silver prohibits the bacteria from multiplying. For your BOB, the body cloth used without soap and the silvercare toothbrush would be wonderful additions. Please check out youtube for relevant videos about their products, and if you have any questions, please contact me. I was so impressed with these products, I became a sales rep. This company started in Norway, and their products are used in the hospitals there. Thanks for listening. Linda

  3. That is a great question, Diane, and I do not know the answer. I do know someone to ask, though.

    This last month I have been tossing out old wipes. Thinking I could stretch things out another year, I opened a few packets and they were dry as a bone. So out they went. Yesterday, though, I opened another old packet (the brand was “Wet Ones”) and they were wet and perfect for wiping my hands. But were they still effective for anti-bacterial and germ fighting? Alcohol does not go bad but that was not the active ingredient.

    This prepping stuff should be a no-brainer. I don’t want to worry about whether the wipes are good, are dry, or bad. I now keep a small supply of wipes on hand and rotate. I have more important things to think about if you know what I mean. 🙂

  4. Thank you for all the information! Do you think that the individually wrapped wipes would have a longer shelf life if they were sealed with O2 absorbers, in a jar?

  5. I’m betting the farm on “colloidal silver”. It is very anti-bacterial, so much that the settlers going across the west in covered wagons put a single silver dollar in their water barrel to keep the water from going bad.
    You can purchase colloidal generators very cheaply or you can make one. There are many U-tube videos on “how to”.

    • We have Norwex cloths (and other cleaning products) which are woven with silver. They require no chemicals to clean surfaces and other items in your home. We absolutely love them.

      I also use them when making beer/mead/wine at home. Foreign bacteria is your enemy when making homemade booze. Haven’t had a single infection since starting to use the cloths.

      *I am not a Norwex distributor/seller, just a happy consumer.

    • Yep, silver is one of the methods on which I’ll be relying; for both barrel and smaller containers. 🙂

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