If you weren’t using “Purell” as a verb before 2020, you probably are now. Purell is just the latest brand to have its signature product turned into a verb. Like “google” and “rollerblade” before it, “to purell” now means “to cleanse your hands with anti-bacterial hand-sanitizing gel.” Purell was one of the first players in the hand sanitizer game, but it’s certainly not the last – or only – as evidenced by the plethora of options available in a surprisingly wide variety of retailers. But is there a difference between all these options? Are some better than others? Are any overkill? Which is the best? We’ll break down the types of hand sanitizer and ingredients to watch for so you can be an informed sanitizer (and consumer).
But first, a word from the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
“Cleaning hands at key times with soap and water or hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to those around you.”
When Should I Use Hand Sanitizer vs. Soap and Water?
First, to be clear, the CDC states that the best defense against spreading germs and getting sick is to wash hands with soap and water. However, if you can't wash your hands, then hand sanitizer is the best option.
Let’s look at how hand sanitizer is different from soap and water. Washing your hands with soap and water physically removes microorganisms, dirt, and other foreign and potentially harmful elements from your hands. Hand sanitizer on the other hand reduces the number of microorganisms on your skin by killing some. The CDC has good, data-backed information about when (and why) to use soap and water over hand sanitizer. Here are a few key points:
Use soap and water for contact with certain types of germs: Hand sanitizer will not eliminate certain chemicals, germs, and viruses, such as C.Diff. Soap and water is best here!
Use soap and water when hands are visibly dirty or grimy: Hand sanitizer is effective in eliminating germs, but cannot wash away dirt and grime like soap and water. When you need to remove residue, hand sanitizer may not be effective.
Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when soap and water are not available: Hand sanitizer with a 60% alcohol content or higher is better than nothing when soap and water are not available. Just make sure to use enough volume to cover the entire surface of both hands (front back, and in between fingers), and let the hand sanitizer dry completely before touching anything or rubbing your hands together.
Effectiveness of Hand Sanitizers
Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap has long been the best defense against spreading germs and bacteria and is still the primary recommendation to reduce the spread of infections and getting sick. However, recognizing that sinks and soap are not nearly as accessible as a pocket-sized container of hand sanitizer, (and the fact that frequent hand-washing can severely dry out your hands!) the recommendation is to use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content to kill germs. Check out the Flents® line of Hand Sanitizers in various sizes, all containing 62% ethyl alcohol (which we learned above is ethanol!). These hand sanitizers also contain Vitamin E moisturizers, which makes them suitable to repeated use without drying out your hands!
Effectiveness of hand sanitizer depends on how much you use, and whether you let it dry fully. Increased volume and drying duration allows the alcohol more time to kill more potentially harmful microbes. In a similar way, the time you spend washing your hands, the volume of soap you use and the level of vigor with which you scrub results in varying levels of clean hands.
It’s important to use the right tool for the job, or in this case the right agent for the job. A good volume of 60% alcohol hand sanitizer can be just as effective in certain situations as 20 seconds washing your hands with soap and warm water.
Types of Hand Sanitizers
Hand sanitizers come in many forms. Here are three common ones:
Foam & Gel Hand Sanitizers
Hand sanitizers in foam and gel formats are most effective in delivering germ-eliminating benefits because a larger volume is delivered per use than in other formats. Gels and foams are most effective when used in an appropriate volume, when dispersed evenly over the front and back of hands, and between fingers, and when allowed to properly dry.
Spray Hand Sanitizers
First off, make sure that any spray you are considering for use as a hand sanitizer is indeed intended for use on your hands. NEVER use products intended for cleaning hard, non-porous surfaces on your skin. Simply put, cleaning products are not a substitute for hand sanitizers.
Hand Sanitizer Wipes (a.k.a. Anti-Bacterial Wipes)
Many people prefer sanitizing wipes to the gels. This is because gel can leak or drip in purses or pockets. However, if using wipes as a sanitizing agent, consumers must ensure that their hands are free from dirt and grime. While the wipe are effective at removing dirt and residue from hands, they are not simultaneously effective at sanitizing as well. As such, if your hands are dirty and need to also be sanitized, it’s best to use one wipe to first clean the dirt and grime from your hands, let dry, then use another wipe to sanitize your hands and let dry. In this way you can get both benefits from your sanitizing wipes.
Hand Sanitizer Ingredients
Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers
According to the CDC, the only alcohols permitted as active ingredients in alcohol-based hand sanitizers are ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol or 2-propanol). However, any hand-sanitizer labeled as containing alcohol usually contains ethanol.
You may have heard of distilleries pivoting to hand sanitizer production this year. Due to the shortage of hand sanitizer this year, the FDA issued guidance for temporary production for these types of facilities. However, it is not recommended that consumers try creating their own hand-sanitizer at home, nor is it recommended to add alcohol to non-alcohol hand sanitizers. Made incorrectly, these products could end up causing harm. Best to use soap and water when hand sanitizer is not available!
Warning: Make sure your hand sanitizer DOES NOT CONTAIN methanol. Methanol can be toxic and is very unsafe for use as a sanitizer. If your hand sanitizer is found to have methanol, make sure to discard it in a hazardous materials waste repository. DO NOT pour this product down the drain! Contact your city to find the nearest hazardous waste drop-off near you.
Non-Alcohol Based Hand Sanitizer
Simply put, non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not recommended by the CDC, which has stated that hand sanitizers should have at least 60% alcohol to be effective in preventing the spread of germs. There are, however, non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers on the market, and if you’re using one, make sure that the only active ingredient in the product is benzalkonium chloride. Benzalkonium chloride can be legally marketed as a hand sanitizer product if proper regulations are met, but it is not covered for use to control the spread of disease by either the CDC or the FDA. Both recommend good ol’ soap and water over non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
No doubt you also have some hand sanitizer within reach this very moment. Go ahead, grab it and see how it stacks up now that you’re better informed about hand sanitizers! Want to learn even more about hand sanitizer? Visit the FDA’s Frequently Asked Questions page here. Then, test your knowledge about hand sanitizer with this hand sanitizer quiz from the FDA!
- 7 Things to Know About Hand Sanitizer https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/hand-sanitizer.html
- Antibacterial Wipes or Hand Sanitizer: Which Is More Effective When Hand Washing Isn't an Option? https://www.marthastewart.com/7986722/antibacterial-hand-wipes-vs-sanitizer-effectiveness-coronavirus-covid-19
- Introduction to Hand Sanitizers https://microchemlab.com/information/introduction-hand-sanitizers
- Q&A for Consumers | Hand Sanitizers and COVID-19 https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/qa-consumers-hand-sanitizers-and-covid-19
- Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html