It seems everyone is talking about hand sanitizer right now. But what, exactly, is hand sanitizer and how does it work? Does hand sanitizer kill viruses? Is it bad for you?
These are all great questions that we wanted answers to as well. Your health and your family’s safety are important, so we sifted through information from the Centers for Disease Control and other reliable sources to get to the bottom of these hand sanitizer questions.
How Does Hand Sanitizer Work?
The active ingredient in hand sanitizers is ethyl alcohol. When you apply hand sanitizer to your skin, this alcohol destroys germs and other pathogens by breaking them apart and splitting up their cells. The CDC recommends a concentration of at least 60% ethyl alcohol for hand sanitizer to be effective. Products that contain less than 60% ethyl alcohol or claim to be alcohol free may only destroy a few microbes, leaving your hands vulnerable to infectious substances. The 63% ethyl alcohol in Vitabath® hand sanitizers has a very long shelf life — plus, bacteria do not develop resistance to ethyl alcohol, meaning it remains an effective tool against many germs even with repeated use.
What’s the Right Way to Use Hand Sanitizer?
It’s important to use hand sanitizer correctly to get the most protective benefit:
- Dispense enough product to cover your palms, fingers and the backs of your hands.
- Rub the hand sanitizer into your skin until it is dry. Letting the wet product evaporate may make it less effective.
- Be sure to interlace your fingers, rub the sanitizer into your fingernail beds and rub the backs of your hands.
Does Hand Sanitizer Kill Viruses?
Studies have shown that hand sanitizers containing at least 60% ethyl alcohol are very effective at killing bacteria — even very tough bugs like E. coli and staph. They also kill many types of viruses, though not all of them. Others like norovirus and C-difficile may survive a hand sanitizer rub, which is why it’s important to keep washing your hands frequently in addition to using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available. The CDC notes that the combination of frequently washing with soap and water plus using hand sanitizer when necessary is very effective at avoiding many infections.
Should I Still Use Soap and Water?
Yes, without a doubt. If your hands are covered in dirt or grease, hand sanitizer will not be effective. It’s best to wash your hands with a high-quality hand soap and water to remove soil or pesticides from gardening, grease from preparing food or other visible dirt and debris. When your hands are relatively clean but exposed to potentially contaminated surfaces — like door handles, products in a store or surfaces in other public spaces — hand sanitizer is a highly effective way of minimizing your risk of getting sick in situations where soap and water aren’t accessible.
Is Hand Sanitizer Bad for You?
While there’s no danger to you, the high concentration of alcohol in effective hand sanitizers can cause some dryness in your skin. It’s the same way as how repeated hand washing can make your hands feel dry and tight. A good strategy to alleviate that is to keep some great-smelling hand cream or lotion nearby and apply it after rubbing the hand sanitizer in until it dries. Naturally, hand sanitizer should never, ever be swallowed — and you should supervise children under the age of six when using hand sanitizer, as they may be tempted to sample the colorful and sweet-smelling liquid.
(The info in both sources was about the same. I drew from both and thought the overlap enforced the reliability factor.)