What Is in Hand Sanitizer?

Person applying hand sanitizer to his hands

Also known as hand antiseptic, hand sanitizer is a gel, foam, or liquid that helps fight germs when soap and water are unavailable. It’s an effective alternative to washing hands with soap and water. They work by either inactivating the microorganisms or destroying them. So, what is in hand sanitizer?

What Is in Hand Sanitizer?

Hand sanitizers contain active ingredients that kill germs. These ingredients include ethanol, isopropanol, n-propanol, chlorhexidine, and quaternary ammonium compounds such as Benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, and chloroxylenol. These ingredients effectively kill most of the common pathogens that can cause disease.Person applying hand sanitizer to his hands

Ethanol is the most common active ingredient in sanitizers and is most effective against germs and viruses. Isopropanol and n-propanol are also effective against viruses; however, they are not as common in sanitizers as ethanol. Chlorhexidine is an antiseptic effective against various microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It is often used in surgical scrubs and sanitizers.

The inactive ingredients in sanitizers are usually humectants, like glycerin, and emollients, like aloe vera, that help keep the hands soft and moist. Sanitizers also contain colorants, like dyes or pigments and fragrances. All these ingredients are safe when used as directed and pose no threat to human health.

How Do These Ingredients Work?

While there are alcohol free sanitizers, most of the sanitizers available in the market are alcohol-based. Alcohol is a good antiseptic as it can kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The alcohol in sanitizers works by denaturing the proteins in the microorganisms, which leads to their death.

Chlorhexidine and quaternary ammonium compounds work by disrupting the cell membrane of the microorganisms and dissolving their cell content, leading to their death. When they come into contact with the skin, these ingredients destroy any microorganisms present on the skin’s surface and prevent them from infecting the body.

How to Use Hand Sanitizers

Hand sanitizers are easy to use and can be applied directly to the hands. They are usually available in pump bottles or as wipes. The following are step by step instructions on how to use  sanitizers:

  1. Apply the sanitizer to the palm of one hand. Ensure you cover all the surfaces of your hand.
  2. Rub your hands together until the sanitizer is absorbed. This will take approximately 20 seconds.
  3. Do not wash your hands after using the sanitizer, as it will reduce its efficacy.
  4. After the hands are dry, you can proceed with your activities.

When Should You Use Sanitizers?

Sanitizers have specific times when you need to use them to be effective. You don’t just decide to use them when you feel like it. Here are some specific times when you need to use sanitizers:Teenage girl spraying hand sanitizer for her little brother

When Soap and Water Are Not Available

Soap and water are the best way to clean your hands; however, there are times when they are not available. In such situations, sanitizers can be used as an alternative. Do not use them if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, as they will not be effective in such situations.

When Handling Food

It is important to use sanitizers when handling food to help reduce the risk of contamination. The ingredients in the sanitizer, such as ethanol and chlorhexidine, are effective against foodborne pathogens. They work on the bacteria and other microorganisms present in your hands and kill them as you handle food.

When Caring for the Sick

Most of the time, getting sick is caused by coming into contact with pathogens. When you are taking care of someone who is sick, there is a risk of you getting sick as well. To help reduce this risk, it is important to use sanitizers.

The alcohol in the sanitizers will kill the pathogens present on your hands and prevent you from getting sick. It will also protect the person you are caring for from getting sicker.

When You Are Sick

Sometimes touching water frequently when sick may be a challenge. You don’t want to touch cold water and make yourself feel worse. In such situations, sanitizers can be used to clean your hands.

This will reduce the risk of you contaminating surfaces and other people. It will also help keep your hands clean and reduce the spread of your suffering illness.

When Should You Not Use Hand Sanitizers?

There are certain situations when sanitizers should not be used, whether you’re using alcohol-based or natural sanitizers. Here are some of those situations:Person applying hand sanitizer to his hands

  • When your hands are visibly too dirty or greasy: If your hands are excessively dirty or greasy, sanitizers will not be effective. In such situations, you should wash your hands with soap and water.
  • When you are caring for someone with a highly contagious illness: If you are taking care of someone with a highly contagious illness, such as the flu, it is best to wash your hands with soap and water. Sanitizers will not be effective in such situations.
  • When you are using harsh chemicals: Harsh chemicals can damage the skin on your hands. If you are using them, it is best to wash your hands with soap and water.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does Hand Sanitizer Last on My Hands?

Hand sanitizers can work for a period of four to six hours. This is the case for both alcohol-based and natural sanitizers. After this time, your hands will need to be rewashed with soap and water.

Can I Use a Sanitizer on My Face?

No, you should not use sanitizers on your face. The ingredients in the sanitizer can be harsh on your skin and cause irritation. Also, when it gets into your eyes, it can cause redness and burning. If you need to clean your face, use soap and water instead.

How Long Does It Take for Hand Sanitizer to Evaporate?

An effective sanitizer will evaporate quickly within about 15 seconds. If it takes longer than that, it is not an effective sanitizer, and you should look for another product.


Getting a hand sanitizer with the right ingredients is important to ensure its effectiveness. Alcohol-based sanitizers are the most effective, and that is why they are the most popular. However, natural and alcohol free sanitizers can also be effective if you choose one with the right ingredients.