Is Hand Sanitizer Effective Enough to Kill Viruses?

Published March 11, 2020
Pumping hand sanitizer into hand

Fears over catching serious illnesses like coronavirus and the flu have led to mass purchases of products like hand sanitizer. The question is, does hand sanitizer kill viruses as much as the public may believe it does?

Hand Sanitizer Effectiveness

Hand sanitizers can be effective in killing germs on our hands, but they will not kill all types of pathogens that we should be concerned about. Moreover, hand sanitizers are only truly effective for certain germs when used properly.

Does Hand Sanitizer Kill Viruses?

There are a number of viruses that hand sanitizer can kill if found on your hands. This includes COVID-19 (coronavirus), the flu, rhinovirus and the H1N1 virus. It also can kill some types of fungi and bacteria. However, in order for the hand sanitizer to work, you need to observe the following:

  1. You must wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds prior to using the sanitizer. If your hands are dirty, hand sanitizer will not work very well, if at all.
  2. The hand sanitizer must be at least 60% alcohol, and the higher the percentage above 60 the better, up to 95%.
  3. You can use either antibacterial or antimicrobial versions of hand sanitizer, but the antimicrobial version is the more effective pick.
  4. You must use enough hand sanitizer to cover your hands fully with approximately 2.4 to 3 mL of the gel. In a typical hand sanitizer with a pump, this would take several pumps to achieve that amount on your hands.
  5. Once you have covered your hands with the gel, you must rub your hands with the sanitizer on for at least 20 to 30 seconds.
  6. You must allow the hand sanitizer to dry fully.

It's important to note that sanitizer will only kill germs found on your skin where you use the hand sanitizer. It will not protect you if the germs fall on other parts of your body or are inhaled by you.

Hand Sanitizer Ingredients

When shopping for hand sanitizer, it's important that it has at least 60% alcohol content to be effective. It also must contain alcohol to be effective. The ingredient list on the product label will either say ethanol, ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. Avoid using any sanitizer that claims to have alternative ingredients that are as good as alcohol or that's "alcohol free." If there is not at least 60% alcohol in the product, it will not be effective for keeping you safe from germs.

What Does Hand Sanitizer Not Kill?

Hand sanitizer is not as effective with other types of harmful pathogens. It cannot kill parasites such as cryptosporidium which causes diarrhea. It also is not effective against norovirus, poliovirus, polyomavirus, calicivirus, hepatitis A virus, foot-and-mouth disease virus, and Clostridium difficile. One research study also found that using hand sanitizer could actually increase the amount of urinary pesticide metabolites on the hands of farm workers.

Are Public Hand Sanitizer Dispensers Safe?

It has become more common to find public hand sanitizer dispensers in public and corporate bathrooms and kitchen areas. These dispensers are safe to use, provided you use the hand sanitizer in the most effective manner as described above. In fact, research has found that public hand sanitizers placed in workplaces led to a decrease by two-thirds of sickness among workers who used it.

Hand Washing Versus Hand Sanitizer: Which Is Better?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most effective way to keep your hands clear of harmful microbes is to wash them with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds or more. A good rule of thumb to follow is to sing the Happy Birthday song twice while washing your hands. This should take about 20 seconds to complete. The CDC recommends using a 60% or higher alcohol-content hand sanitizer in the following scenarios:

  • If you are visiting someone in a nursing home or hospital, use before and after your visit (unless the person has become ill due to Clostridium difficile).
  • If you don't have access to soap and water to wash your hands. However, you should be sure to wash your hands as soon as you are able to.

Hand Sanitizer Can Be Effective in Preventing Illness

Although washing your hands with warm water and soap is the best way to kill the most types of harmful pathogens on your hands, hand sanitizer is a good second choice if hand washing isn't an option. Just keep in mind that it's not effective with certain types of microbes, and you must be sure to use a solution that is at least 60% alcohol on cleaned hands for at least 20 seconds. If you follow the CDC's guidelines, you can play a role in reducing not only illness to yourself, but to others you come in contact with.

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Is Hand Sanitizer Effective Enough to Kill Viruses?