Does hand sanitizer really kill bacteria and viruses?

Staying Safe

A: Yes. Hand sanitizers that contain 60-95% alcohol or 0.13% benzalkonium chlorides are effective in killing bacteria and destroying viruses when used properly.

Washing hands with soap and water remains the best way to rid your hands of disease-causing germs. And there are a few germs that hand sanitizer will not kill. However, when there is limited or no water around, hand sanitizer can be a convenient, safe, and effective addition to your hand hygiene.

In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration issued its final rule on hand sanitizers. The FDA approved the use of three common active ingredients without the need for further proof that they are effective in killing bacteria and germs when present in the proper concentrations. They are ethyl alcohol (ethanol), isopropyl alcohol, and benzalkonium chlorides. Each are organic compounds that either destroy the cell membranes of bacteria, disrupt vial capsules, or halt vital germ activity. These products can be harmful by simply slowing rather than killing some germs if the alcohol concentration is below 60%. Above 95% concentration, no greater effect in killing germs has been found. Benzalkonium chlorides require a concentration of 0.13% to be effective. In the presence of adequate concentrations of active ingredients, hand sanitizers kill germs without leading to bacterial or viral resistance even when used regularly.

Hand sanitizer is better than soap and water against some bacteria like Escherichia coli, found in human stool. However, in spite of the ability to stop the spread of most germs, hand sanitizers have limits even when used properly. They are not effective in a few situations:

-greasy or heavily soiled hands
-toxins and pesticides on the hands
-norovirus (the virus that causes diarrhea on cruise ship outbreaks)
-spore forming bacteria like Clostridium difficile (bacterial diarrhea)

Whether we employ good hand washing with soap and water or the use of hand sanitizers, it is essential that hand washing is done properly. Engaging for 20 seconds and rubbing the back of the hands, palms, and between the fingers is necessary to kill germs.

Here are a few common ways that hand sanitizers are misused:

-using inadequate amount to keep hands wet for 20 seconds
-rubbing only the palms and not the backs of hands or between fingers
-wiping-off the wet hand sanitizer instead of letting it air dry
-using home-made sanitizer with a low active ingredient concentration
-using home-made sanitizer without effective active ingredients

Safe, effective, and proper use of hand sanitizer with the best concentration of active ingredients can be a convenient addition to your routine of hygiene when soap and water are not readily available.

Live Science – How does hand sanitizer work?

CDC – Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings

FDA – FDA issues final rule on safety and effectiveness of consumer hand sanitizers

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