15th April, 20214 min read

Does hand sanitiser work?

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Author:
Ana Mosciuk
Ana Mosciuk
Last reviewed: 14/04/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

When you need to wash your hands but there’s no soap and water nearby, hand sanitiser can be a quick way to kill many – but not all – types of germs on your hands. Here’s how it works.

How does hand sanitiser work?

The alcohol in hand sanitiser changes the shape of proteins that bacteria and viruses need to survive – so they die.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Does hand sanitiser kill all germs?

Hand sanitiser with alcohol – if rubbed thoroughly over hands and fingers for 30 seconds – can quickly kill many microbes on your hands, but it doesn’t kill all germs.

Hand sanitiser is not as effective as soap and water against harmful bacteria and parasites such as Clostridium difficile, Cryptosporidium and Giardia – which can infect the bowel and cause symptoms like tummy pain and diarrhoea.

Hand sanitiser is also unlikely to remove many types of harmful chemicals from your hands, including pesticides and heavy metals.

Does hand sanitiser kill all viruses?

If applied correctly, hand sanitiser can kill enveloped viruses like flu and coronavirus – these viruses have a fatty shell or cover that can be destroyed by soap and water.

However, hand sanitiser doesn’t work against non-enveloped viruses, like norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea.

Will hand sanitiser clean my hands?

Person washing hands in sink

Hand sanitisers don’t work well if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

If your hands are dirty after cooking, working in the garden or playing sports, you should wash them with soap and water.

What type of alcohol is in hand sanitiser?

The most common types of alcohol you’ll see on the labels of alcohol-based hand sanitisers are:

  • ethyl – also called ethanol or alcohol
  • isopropyl – also called isopropanol or 2-propanol

Does the alcohol percentage in hand sanitiser matter?

The CDC advises using a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol. At this concentration, alcohol kills many types of germs, helping to protect you from getting sick and spreading germs to other people.

Studies have shown that hand sanitisers without alcohol or with lower alcohol concentrations may reduce the growth of germs instead of killing them, or may not kill many types of microbes.

Is hand sanitiser safe?

The types of alcohol used in hand sanitiser are approved for this purpose, but some hand sanitisers may contain potentially harmful types of alcohol – like methanol, wood alcohol and 1-Propanol – so pick the best one for your skin.

Hand sanitiser shouldn’t dry your hands or irritate your skin, but it might sting when used on cuts or broken skin.

Some hand sanitisers can cause contact dermatitis – speak to your doctor if you have symptoms such as itchy, red skin.

There are a few other things to keep in mind when using hand sanitiser:

  • check the label of your hand sanitiser for an expiry date – if there isn’t one, it’ll generally be effective for about 3 years
  • hand sanitiser is flammable, so store it away from heat and flames, and let it dry on your hands properly before working near heat, sparks or flames
  • if you or someone else has swallowed alcohol-based hand sanitiser, see a doctor urgently – it can cause alcohol poisoning

Person outdoors rubbing hand sanitiser on hands

Does hand sanitiser cause antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria and viruses are not killed by the drugs made to kill them. Hand sanitiser is not known to make germs more resistant to drugs.

Key points

  • if there’s no soap and water nearby, hand sanitiser can be used to kill many types of germs on your hands
  • hand sanitisers don’t kill all types of bacteria and viruses
  • wash your hands with soap and water if they’re visibly dirty
  • use hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • hand sanitiser is safe to use, but remember it’s flammable and also shouldn’t be swallowed
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