What Does Hand Sanitizer Do?

Couple holding hand sanitizers

The pandemic early months compelled us to adopt a few precautionary measures. One of these is carrying a hand sanitizer everywhere we go. Consequently, the number of hand sanitizers sold in the U.S increased by 73%, yet what does hand sanitizer do, exactly? 

What Does Hand Sanitizer Do?

Hand sanitizers destroys pathogens, and break apart bacteria and viruses. They can kill most of the germs, including respiratory viruses such as Covid-19, found on your skin. Most hand sanitizers contain alcohol in the form of ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol, which function as a disinfectant in the solution.Hand sanitizer being poured on a hand

An alcohol-based hand sanitizer with high concentrations of alcohol works faster and more efficiently. Therefore, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Moreover, alcohol is one of the few agents that retain its efficacy despite continued use, as the bacteria cannot develop a resistance to it.

Hand Sanitizer vs Soap

An alcohol-based hand sanitizer can kill the majority of germs. However, hand washing still takes precedence over any hand sanitizer, as alcohol is unable to kill certain germs such as diarrhea-causing norovirus and Clostridium difficile (C diff). 

Moreover, a hand sanitizer cannot remove harmful chemicals such as pesticides or heavy metals from your hand. It also fails to function effectively on extremely dirty or greasy hands. Hence, it is not a viable option for every situation.

Whereas soap and water kill harmful bacteria and viruses. The soap molecules are also able to detach and remove these harmful substances from your skin. Therefore, when it comes to ensuring optimum hand hygiene, washing hands is better than using a hand sanitizer.

Is Alcoholic-Free Hand Sanitizer Effective?

You can use an alcohol-free hand sanitizer if the alcohol content is causing extreme dryness or irritant contact dermatitis, which is a skin reaction that occurs when the skin’s outer protective layer is damaged.  

A few studies indicate that an alcohol-free hand sanitizer that contains benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient at a low concentration of 0.13% is relatively effective against various germs and bacteria. 

Why Were Certain Hand Sanitizers Recalled?

According to a survey, approximately 77% of Americans use hand sanitizer. After all, so many of us have started using them more often since the start of the pandemic. However, do you know that FDA has recalled tens of hand sanitizers after testing them due to multiple reasons listed below:  Couple holding hand sanitizers

Toxic Ingredients

Some of the hand sanitizers recalled contained harmful chemicals like methanol and 1-propanol. These are not acceptable ingredients to be used in a hand sanitizer as they can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or life-threatening when ingested, especially for children. 

Exposure to methanol can cause nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, permanent blindness, headache, seizures, coma, permanent nerve damage, or death. Therefore, if you have used one of the listed hand sanitizers and are experiencing symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention.    

Inadequate Alcohol Content

Solutions with an alcohol content of around 30% have some pathogen-killing abilities. Regardless, you should always use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, as recommended by FDC.

Unfortunately, some of the hand sanitizers recalled failed to meet the recommended minimum percentage, making them quite ineffective against a majority of the germs. 

Incorrect Labels

A few hand sanitizer labels had false or misleading information perpetuating unproven claims about their efficacy against the novel coronavirus. These claims included the prevention of the virus spread and up to 24 hours protection against germs.

Since there was no authenticity to these claims, the products were causing more harm than good, lulling people into a false sense of protection.

How to Keep Yourself From Getting Sick

Hand sanitizers do play a defining role when it comes to protecting yourself from particular diseases or infections. However, it is recommended by CDC to wash hands for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the washroom, changing a diaper, or touching a trash can, before eating or preparing food, after helping a sick person, or petting an animal.Mother applying hand sanitizer on her child's hands

You should also regularly disinfectant surfaces and electronics around the home as they can accumulate bacteria over time, a combination of surface wipes and all purpose cleaner is your best defense. In addition, you should avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth when you are out, as an infectious virus can travel from your hands to your body through these cavities.

Related Questions    

Does Hand Sanitizer Leave Behind a Residue?

If your hand sanitizer is leaving behind a residue, you should discard it immediately and switch to a different brand. The buildup from the hand sanitizer can actually trap germs on your skin instead of killing them. Thus, you should wash your hands properly and immediately if you feel a coating on your skin. 

Do Hand Sanitizers Expire?

Yes, hand sanitizers expire. Every hand sanitizer bottle has an expiration date and a lot number printed on it, as regulated by the FDA. The date indicates the duration when the active ingredients remain stable and effective. The usual industry standard is around 2 to 3 years.

However, some companies test the amount of time the product is viable to use prior to printing a date. 

Even though the sanitizer may retain a percentage of its efficiency and is not dangerous to use after it has expired, it is best to replace it with a new bottle.  

Are Hand Sanitizers Safe to Use? 

Yes, hand sanitizers are safe for topical application, as they can clean your hands conveniently and effectively. You can also use them on regular basis, as long as you do not suffer from an allergic reaction or irritation from the formula. 

Consequently, experts have promoted the use of hand sanitizers every day as a safety measure against coronavirus. Even once the pandemic is over, it is a good practice to keep a small sanitizer bottle in your bag, to disinfect your hands with water if a handwashing station is not accessible.


Hand sanitizer can kill many of the infection-causing viruses and bacteria. However, you should only use a hand sanitizer if you are unable to use soap and water. Moreover, before you buy a new bottle, check out the list of recalled sanitizers as they can contain toxic chemicals, insufficient amounts of alcohol, or misleading labels.