Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is easy to use, convenient, and often easy to find. While there is a proper way to use hand sanitizer to get the most out of it, what is probably more important is knowing when to use it might not be the best option. Hand sanitizer can help kill germs, but it does not work on all germs or other substances that you may get on your hands.
The CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water whenever possible, as often as possible (and whenever your hands are visibly dirty). A hand sanitizer can be used in addition to this or when washing is not an option.
Instead of washing with soap
When your hands are visibly dirty
When you have chemicals on your hands
How does it work
When disinfectants first appeared, there was little research showing what they did and didn't do, but now that has changed. More research is needed, but scientists are learning more all the time.
The active ingredient in hand sanitizers is isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), a similar form of alcohol (ethanol or n-propanol), or a combination of both. Alcohols have long been known to kill microbes by dissolving their protective outer layer of protein and disrupting their metabolism .
According to the CDC, research shows that hand sanitizer kills germs just as effectively as washing your hands with soap and water, unless your hands look dirty or greasy. They also don't remove potentially harmful chemicals .
Hand sanitizers also don't kill some of the common germs that soap and water kill, such as:
- Clostridium difficile
Protection against bacteria and viruses.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has filed lawsuits against some hand sanitizer companies for making unsubstantiated claims against salmonella , for example. Coli , Ebola, rotavirus, influenza, and MRSA ( methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus ).
At the same time, research is beginning to suggest that alcohol-based hand sanitizers may be effective in killing some of these germs. (Even so, the companies that make them have not yet received FDA approval for this use, so any claims about it are illegal.)
- A 2019 hospital-borne infection study shows that disinfectants can help slow the spread of MRSA and other infections by providing healthcare professionals with a quick, easy, and convenient way to improve hand hygiene .
- A study published in 2015 concluded that alcohol-based disinfectants could reduce the population of Salmonella and E. coli .
- Heavy use of hand sanitizers in Japan in response to the influenza pandemic could reduce the short-term spread of norovirus .
- In a study conducted in elementary schools, hand sanitizers reduced absenteeism due to illness by 26% and reduced confirmed cases of highly contagious influenza A virus by 52%. However, it was less effective against influenza B virus.
- A 2018 kindergarten study found that the number of days lost due to common illnesses decreased as the center introduced hand sanitizers and trained staff, children and parents on how to use them correctly .
However, it is important to remember that not all studies are conclusive. In fact, a long-term study of hospitals found that employee preference for disinfectants over soap and water could contribute to norovirus outbreaks .
Also, the nuances of some of these findings can be confusing. For example, a study published in 2019 found that ethanol-based hand sanitizer reduced the risk of contracting norovirus by 85% with short-term exposure to the virus. However, in very dirty environments, such as on a cruise ship or in a long-term care facility, the disinfectant does not provide any protection .
What to look for
The CDC recommends disinfectants with at least 60% alcohol. Most products contain between 60% and 95%, but don't assume that the higher the percentage, the more effective. These foods should also contain some water for maximum effectiveness.
Some products on the market claim to sanitize hands, but contain little or no alcohol. These foods most likely do not provide adequate protection.
How to use it
When hand sanitizers really work, their effectiveness depends on several factors. Aside from the product you are using, these include:
- How much do you use
- Correct technique
Some situations in which the use of hand sanitizer may be appropriate include when you are in public transportation, shaking hands or touching an animal, after touching a shopping cart, etc.
To use hand sanitizer correctly :
- Place the recommended amount in the palm of your hand. (Read the manufacturer's instructions).
- Rub your hands together, covering your entire palm, even between your fingers.
- Stop rubbing in the disinfectant only after your skin is dry.
Keep alcohol-based hand sanitizer out of the reach of young children, as it can be very dangerous if swallowed. High alcohol content can be fatal to a young child.
When not to use
Hand sanitizer should not be used as a substitute for soap and water in the following situations:
- Washing is convenient
- Your hands are greasy or visibly dirty
- You have chemicals on your hands
- You may have been exposed to infectious agents that are not destroyed by hand sanitizer.
- You are in a situation with a high infection rate.
For you and your family to stay healthy, it is especially important to wash your hands after using the bathroom or preparing food. It is best to wash your hands well with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
The information in this article is current as of the date shown, which means that more information may be available when you read it. For the latest news on COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus News page .