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How Does Hand Sanitizer Work?

Person disinfecting hands with clear hand sanitizer gel

Washing your hands with soap and water is the ideal when it comes to reducing germs and chemicals on your hands and protecting your body against sickness and infection. In a pinch, using hand sanitizer that contains 60% alcohol or more can still be effective in helping to stop the spread of disease and germs.i Hand sanitizer, available in liquid, gel and foam forms, is a product that can be found in your local drugstore or grocery store, but not everyone understands the science behind this commonplace item—how does hand sanitizer work and is it really effective?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a quick, portable solution for reducing the number of microbes on a person’s hands,ii making them popular in clinical environments such as hospitals. Alcohol-based sanitizers have the ability to inactivate many types of microbes, but soap and water are more effective for some types of germs, including Cryptosporidium, norovirus and Clostridium difficile. For maximum effectivity, it is necessary to use a large enough volume of sanitizer and leave it on until it dries.iii

Ethyl alcohol, a broad-spectrum germicide,iv is the most commonly-used active ingredient in over-the-counter sanitizing liquids, gels and foams.v Both ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol, another water-soluble chemical compound, are bactericidal—meaning they kill bacteria—rather than bacteriostatic—meaning they prevent bacteria from reproducing—against vegetative forms of bacteria.vi These two alcohols are are tuberculocidal, fungicidal and virucidal. However, they will not destroy bacterial spores.vii

When you’re selecting your hand sanitizer, make sure to choose one that has at least 60% alcohol. Hand sanitizers that contain 60-95% alcohol are more effective at killing germs than sanitizers with a lower alcohol concentration or no alcohol at all. In these cases, non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers or sanitizers with less than 60% alcohol may only reduce the growth of germs on the hands rather than killing them.viii Using a non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer may also cause certain germs to develop a resistance to the sanitizer.ix If you have a non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer, adding alcohol to the existing sanitizer is not recommended by the FDA as it is not likely to result in an effective product.x

While hand sanitizers are better than nothing when you’re on the go, the best defense against germs is still washing your hands with soap and water.xi For more information on cold and flu prevention, visit the Theraflu® Frequently Asked Questions page. 

 

Sources

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i. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html. Accessed 05/06/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

ii. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html. Accessed 05/06/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

iii. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html. Accessed 05/06/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

iv. Infection Prevention and Control of Epidemic- and Pandemic-Prone Acute Respiratory Infections in Health Care. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK214356/. Accessed 05/07/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

v. FDA issues final rule on safety and effectiveness of consumer hand sanitizers. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-issues-final-rule-safety-and-effectiveness-consumer-hand-sanitizers. Accessed 05/07/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

vi. Chemical Disinfectants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/disinfection-methods/chemical.html. Accessed 05/07/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

vii. Chemical Disinfectants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/disinfection-methods/chemical.html. Accessed 05/07/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

viii. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html. Accessed 05/07/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

ix. Does Hand Sanitizer Work? Rush University Medical Center. https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/does-hand-sanitizer-work. Accessed 05/07/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

x. Q&A for Consumers: Hand Sanitizers and COVID-19. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/qa-consumers-hand-sanitizers-and-covid-19. Accessed 05/07/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

xi. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings. Centers for Disease Control and Protection. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html. Accessed 05/06/20. Referenced text is in a red box in sourcing document.

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