The etiology of nosocomial infections, the frequency of contaminated hands with the different nosocomial pathogens, and the role of health care workers' hands during outbreaks suggest that a hand hygiene preparation should at least have activity against bacteria, yeasts, and coated viruses. The importance of efficacy in choosing the right hand hygiene product is reflected in the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline on hand hygiene (J. M. Boyce and D. Pittet, Morb. Mortal. Wkly. Rep. 51:1-45, 2002). The best antimicrobial efficacy can be achieved with ethanol (60 to 85%), isopropanol (60 to 80%), and n-propanol (60 to 80%). The activity is broad and immediate. Ethanol at high concentrations (e.g., 95%) is the most effective treatment against naked viruses, whereas n-propanol seems to be more effective against the resident bacterial flora. The combination of alcohols may have a synergistic effect. The antimicrobial efficacy of chlorhexidine (2 to 4%) and triclosan (1 to 2%) is both lower and slower. Additionally, both agents have a risk of bacterial resistance, which is higher for chlorhexidine than triclosan. Their activity is often supported by the mechanical removal of pathogens during hand washing. Taking the antimicrobial efficacy and the mechanical removal together, they are still less effective than the alcohols. Plain soap and water has the lowest efficacy of all. In the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline, promotion of alcohol-based hand rubs containing various emollients instead of irritating soaps and detergents is one strategy to reduce skin damage, dryness, and irritation. Irritant contact dermatitis is highest with preparations containing 4% chlorhexidine gluconate, less frequent with nonantimicrobial soaps and preparations containing lower concentrations of chlorhexidine gluconate, and lowest with well-formulated alcohol-based hand rubs containing emollients and other skin conditioners. Too few published data from comparative trials are available to reliably rank triclosan. Personnel should be reminded that it is neither necessary nor recommended to routinely wash hands after each application of an alcohol-based hand rub. Long-lasting improvement of compliance with hand hygiene protocols can be successful if an effective and accessible alcohol-based hand rub with a proven dermal tolerance and an excellent user acceptability is supplied, accompanied by education of health care workers and promotion of the use of the product.