Does Hand Sanitizer Really Work?

Cole-Parmer Hand Sanitizer 80% AlcoholGallon size of Cole-Parmer Hand Sanitizer 80% Alcohol
This story was updated on April 27, 2020.

Ideal for when soap and water are not available

With a number of bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizers flying off the shelves due to COVID-19, you may be wondering if this stuff actually works. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is tremendously effective in preventing the spread of the seasonal flu, viruses, coronaviruses, colds and other viral- and bacterial-based diseases. There are in fact few negative consequences about hand sanitizer.

Alcohol a key ingredient

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer kills most types of bacteria and viruses in a few seconds. Although proper hand washing is technically superior than alcohol gels most of the time, hand sanitizer is useful when soap and water are not available.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is best used in hallways, offices, stores, and other public areas. They can rid your hands of germs you pick up before you inadvertently introduce them into your body via your nose, mouth or eyes.

Alcohol kills bacteria usually by dissolving its cellular membrane. Also, the alcohol evaporates quickly after killing the first layer or so of germs on your skin. This means that, although benevolent bacteria are killed, enough remain on lower levels or elsewhere up the arm to re-colonize. Because hand sanitizers evaporat fast and often include aloe or moisturizers, they won’t dry out your skin. Hand sanitizer should only be used externally on your hands. And, since it includes alcohol, it should not be used on cuts. Doing so will cause the area to sting.

Soap and water

Soft CIDE 21032-06-SGD antibacterial soap Hand Soap 32 oz bottle
Alas, you can’t rely solely on alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Alcohol can kill bacteria but not necessarily clean your hands. That is, it does not remove dirt or organic matter as well as soap and water. Soap and water must be the first choice in restrooms.

Also, there are a few key germs that alcohol doesn’t kill well, such as:

  • Cryptosporidium. A parasitic infection that cause breathing and gastrointestinal issues.
  • Norovirus. A viral infection that can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Clostridium difficile. A bacterial infection that can cause intestinal upset and inflammation

Public health experts, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) will tell you that hand washing with ordinary soap and water is the most effective way to remove germs from your hands. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends hand washing with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds to create a full lather and to reach all crevices of your hands and wrists.

Look at the alcohol content

To be effective, alcohol-based hand sanitizers must contain at least 60 percent alcohol or it offers false protection. If it doesn’t include this key ingredient, chances are it won’t work. Some products contain the alcohol substitute benzalkonium chloride, which isn’t as good at killing germs and not effective at killing coronavirus.

Need hand sanitizers and soaps

Sources:

Rachel MacPherson, Insider. Does hand sanitizer work? Yes, but it’s important to understand its limitations. https://www.insider.com/does-hand-sanitizer-work, Accessed, 4.27.2020.

Christopher Wanjek, LiveScience’s Bad Medicine Columnist.  Fighting the Flu: Do Hand Sanitizers Work?  http://www.livescience.com/health/091027-hand-sanitizers.html, Accessed, 4.27.2020.

Disclaimer: Cole-Parmer products are not approved or intended for, and should not be used for medical, clinical, surgical or other patient-oriented applications.

This story was updated on April 27, 2020.