Do Hand Sanitizers Really Work?

5 min read
Hand Santizer

Is that hand sanitizer you’ve been slathering on religiously since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic actually protecting you from the coronavirus and other germs? Keep reading to find out.

Do Hand Sanitizers Really Work?

Sanitizer Works

Hand sanitizers offer a short-term solution for killing germs on your hands when washing with soap and water is not an option. They’re especially useful in hospitals to help prevent the transfer of viruses and bacteria from one patient to another. So, how exactly do they work? Well, the main ingredient in most hand sanitizers is isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) or ethanol (the main ingredient in alcoholic beverages), and as you probably know, alcohols have long been used as a disinfectant against viruses and bacteria.

So, to answer the question: yes, hand sanitizers do work. But, they’re not as effective as soap and water. In fact, hand sanitizer is efficient at killing some microbes, but not all of them. For example, hand sanitizer won’t protect you against cryptosporidium (a parasitic infection that causes breathing and gastrointestinal issues), norovirus (a viral infection that can cause vomiting and diarrhea), or clostridium difficile (a bacterial infection that can cause intestinal upset and inflammation).

Keep in mind that hand sanitizers won’t work if you don’t use them properly. “People generally don’t use enough volume of hand sanitizer or spread it around their hands as far as they should,” Alex Berezow, microbiologist and Vice President of Scientific Communications at the American Council on Science and Health, told Insider. To properly sanitize your hands, you need to read the label to see how much you should use. Once you’ve squeezed out the proper amount, you need to rub it all over the surfaces of both your hands until the hands are completely dry. And, whatever you do, don’t wipe or wash your hands after applying the sanitizer.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: most people outside of hospitals catch respiratory viruses via direct contact with people who already have them, so in those cases, hand sanitizers won’t do any good. They also won’t work if they don’t contain the right ingredient (which we’ll get to in the next section).

On the plus side, hand sanitizers are convenient, and it’s better to use them than to not clean your hands at all.

What to Look for in Hand Sanitizer

Look For

Keep in mind that not all hand sanitizers are created equal. As we just mentioned, hand sanitizers are basically ineffective if they don’t contain the right ingredient. The best sanitizers, then, contain alcohol. According to an article published by Insider, “alcohol-based sanitizers should contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Preferably a concentration ratio between 60 to 95 percent is best. Anything lower than that and you aren’t doing much good.” That’s because hand sanitizers with less than 60 percent alcohol don’t eradicate germs completely. They only reduce the growth of them. And, as for non-alcohol-based sanitizers, our advice is to steer clear of them. The reason being is that they could cause some germs to develop resistance to the sanitizer.

Some of the best hand sanitizers out there right now:

Best Sanitizers

Babyganics Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizer Wipes. Yes, these are alcohol-free, but that’s because using too much alcohol-based sanitizer dries your hands out and can cause them to crack and bleed. Plus, if your little one has an existing skin condition, an alcohol-based sanitizer will only exacerbate the problem. Thankfully, Babyganics alcohol-free hand sanitizer wipes contain plant-based ingredients that help disinfect as they clean, plus citrus peels help to nourish and aloe helps to soothe their sensitive skin. Additionally, they are also free of parabens, sulfates, phthalates, artificial fragrances, and dyes.

Germ-X Hand Sanitizer. This sanitizer is said to be able to kill 99.99 percent of common household germs and bacteria in as little as 15 seconds. Not only that but it’s also quick-drying and doesn’t leave a sticky residue. It also contains aloe and vitamin E.

Clorox Hand Sanitizer Spray. Despite its name, this hand sanitizer does not contain chlorine bleach. It actually contains 71 percent ethyl alcohol, plus emollients to help keep your skin soft. Additionally, there’s no greasy or sticky residue. Like Germ-X, Clorox hand sanitizer spray dries fast and kills 99.999 percent of germs in 15 seconds.

It’s Best to Use Soap and Water

Washing Hands
Source: Pixabay

As we mentioned earlier, hand sanitizers offer a short-term solution for killing germs on your hands when washing with soap and water is not an option. That being said, the best way to protect yourself is by thoroughly washing your hands with warm soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This is especially true when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, or when you’ve touched chemicals. In those cases, hand sanitizers are not effective. Keep in mind that you really must follow the 20-second rule. Not doing so can make a huge difference. For example, washing your hands for just six seconds can leave tons of bacteria around your cuticles, under your nail tips, and even around your wrists. And, after you finish washing your hands you must dry them immediately with a clean towel. That’s because germs can be transferred much easier to and from wet hands.

Another reason to use soap and water instead of hand sanitizer is that daily use of sanitizers may be harmful. According to an article published by Franciscan Health, a 12-hospital system which includes clinics, home health services, and doctors serving Indiana and Illinois, “this spring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a final ruling on the use of certain products in hand sanitizers. People are using hand sanitizer on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day, so the FDA has decided that the companies making hand sanitizers need to provide proof that those chemicals are safe for that level of exposure, especially for pregnant women and children. Three active ingredients—benzalkonium chloride, ethyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol—are still under review.”

Here are a couple more reasons why soap and water are better than hand sanitizer: 1) hand sanitizers that include bacteria-killing chemicals like triclosan can contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and 2) soap and water do a better job of preserving the flora, or “good” bacteria, on your hands than hand sanitizer. When the good bacteria is removed, it can be replaced by potentially harmful bacteria.


Thanks for reading, and stay safe!