Hand sanitizer has been in high demand since the first outbreaks of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean that it should replace hand washing. In fact, according to the CDC, hand sanitizer should only be used as an alternative to hand washing when warm water and soap are unavailable. Additionally, health authorities have outlined what kind of hand sanitizer may work best to kill flu and virus germs. Beyond that, the debate on whether DIY hand sanitizer is a good idea continues to rage. Here’s how to answer, how does hand sanitizer work in 2020 and beyond.
This content is intended for informational purposes. It is not medical advice. Please see the CDC website for up-to-date information on the evolution of COVID-19. Speak with your doctor for medical advice.
- Hand sanitizer may work on many bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19, but not all germs.
- The CDC advises that hand sanitizers are not an alternative to hand washing, which is more effective at killing a variety of germs.
- Active ingredients include isopropyl alcohol and/or ethyl alcohol. The best hand sanitizer will include between 60% and 95% alcohol.
- For best results, health experts advise rubbing one’s hands together until they feel dry, using the recommended amount of product, and spreading it thoroughly over one’s hands.
Hand sanitizer works on the go when hand washing is not available. It’s also an essential tool for healthcare workers to reduce the spread of germs between patients. However, these products are not a substitute for hand washing or other COVID-19 precautions, including wearing a face covering, disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, and social distancing.
Does Hand Sanitizer Work?
Hand sanitizer’s two active ingredients -- isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol -- can be effective at killing a variety of bacteria and viruses. However, this does not mean that all products are of the same quality, or that they should function as a substitute for hand washing.
According to the CDC, hand sanitizer with 60% or more alcohol may be effective at killing certain microbes, but not all. For instance, certain diarrhea-causing parasite and stomach bugs can withstand alcohol-based products. This is why it’s so critical to wash one’s hands whenever possible.
Are your hands visibly dirty? It is especially important to stick with hand washing when grease, chemicals, dirt, or visible dirtiness are involved. Even the best hand sanitizer is not a substitute for thorough hand washing.
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Does Hand Sanitizer Kill Viruses Like COVID-19?
Hand sanitizer can help prevent the spread of viruses -- when using products with 60% or more alcohol and following instructions. This means thoroughly spreading the recommended amount over one’s hands, waiting for it to dry completely (and not wiping it off), and avoiding products with alcohol substitutes or other additives. However, it should serve as a substitute for hand washing.
Why Does Hand Washing Work Better?
Washing your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with soap and water remains the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and other bacteria and viruses. Why? Technically-speaking, the alcohol may kill germs but still leaves them on your hands. By contrast, soap functions as a detergent. This means that when you wash your hands, you are physically removing the germs, too.
Most importantly, even the best hand sanitizer doesn’t kill all germs. One of the main reasons for this is user error. More often than not, someone will use too little hand sanitizer, not spread it around thoroughly, or not let it dry completely. Additionally, not all products contain 60% alcohol, the minimum to be considered effective according to the CDC.
But even with the best practices, hand sanitizer doesn’t work on all germs. Norovirus, which causes diarrhea, Clostridium difficile, an inflammation-causing bacterial infection, and Cryptosporidium, a parasite, can withstand hand sanitizer.
When It Is Appropriate to Use Hand Sanitizer?
The CDC recommends using it when hand washing is not possible. Appropriate times could include while traveling, out of the house, or in the workplace, especially for healthcare workers. Specifically, hand sanitizers may reduce the spread of hospital-borne illnesses, according to research.
Is There a Best Hand Sanitizer?
The best hand sanitizer contains between 60%-95% alcohol, according to research. Additionally, look out for products recalled by the FDA.
Does Natural Hand Sanitizer Work?
There are a lot of variables that impact the efficacy of “natural” products--the most important one being that “natural” is not a regulated term. Unlike “antibacterial,” which is regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), natural can mean a lot of different things. For starters, some products that are branded as “natural,” including natural hand sanitizers, may actually contain ingredients, such as alcohol, found in conventional products.
Beyond that, natural hand sanitizer that only contains organic ingredients may not be tested for germ-killing efficacy. In other words, it may not be as effective as conventional products.
Worried about the drying effects of traditional, non-organic products and not sure what to do? Try moisturizing after your wash or sanitize your hands, especially in the winter months. Some products may also have moisturizing properties, too. Make sure to check the ingredients to find out more.
DIY Hand Sanitizer: Can You Make Your Own?
As always, keep in mind that washing your hands is the most effective way to slow the spread of germs. Still interested in making your own DIY hand sanitizer? Experts may recommend the following tips for making your own concoction. The following is not medical advice.
Ensure that the containers and tools you are using are clean. Using a dirty vessel to hold your solution may contaminate it in its entirety. It may also be a good idea to let your solution sit for 72 hours to ensure that it kills any germs within it.
Is making your own hand sanitizer safe? The FDA does not recommend that you make your own solution. This is due to the risk that it may be ineffective or cause discomfort, or even burning. Additionally, there is a significant margin for error. For example, adding alcohol to a non-alcoholic product will not make it effective.
9 Hand Sanitizer Ingredients & Materials
For more information, you can check out the WHO’s Guide to Local Production. Keep in mind that the following is not medical advice. According to the WHO, here are the 4 ingredients that someone producing DIY hand sanitizer would need:
- Glycerin or glycerol
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Distilled water or cold boiled water
- Hydrogen peroxide, a natural disinfectant
In addition to the above ingredients, production may require:
- Spray container or glass/plastic bottles with secure tops
- 10-liter plastic or glass bottle
- Paddles for mixing (can be wood, metal, or plastic)
- Measuring glasses or jugs
Are There Dangers Associated with Hand Sanitizer?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a sharp increase in demand for hand sanitizer has resulted in the production of ineffective or potentially dangerous products. For instance, some products which are claim to contain ethanol may actually contain Methanol, which is also known as wood alcohol. Methanol may be life-threatening if ingested and toxic when absorbed through the skin, according to an FDA warning.
The Food and Drug Administration also warns consumers to look for products with less than 60% alcohol, which may not be effective, and those with misleading claims. For instance, there are no “FDA approved” hand sanitizer products, though some may be labeled as such.
Hand sanitizer may also cause dry skin, especially in individuals with sensitive skin or eczema. The best course of action is to wash hands whenever possible, follow hand sanitizer instructions, and routinely moisturize one’s hands.
Does It Ever Expire?
Yes, it does. This is because of the alcohol content, which breaks down over time. Once the alcohol content is below 60%, the solution is considered expired. Typically, hand sanitizer expires in approximately three years, but check the label.
Hand Sanitizer Facts for 2020
Promoting healthy habits, especially when out in public or at work, is more critical in 2020 than ever before. But finding the best hand sanitizer may be a challenge as producers cope with increased demand and less than legitimate products hit the market.
According to the CDC, washing one’s hands is critical when it comes to coronavirus prevention. If soap and water are unavailable -- and one’s hands are not coated in dirt or another substance -- hand sanitizer may work to help prevent COVID-19 transmission. When choosing a product, look for 60% or more alcohol content, suspicious or unproven claims, and remember that washing your hands is always preferable.