Hand Sanitizer – Overview

As we head back to work and school, many of us are restocking on hand sanitizers. In this post, we take a look at hand sanitizer ingredients so you can make the best choice for yourself and your family.

What are hand sanitizers? 

Hand sanitizers are products that typically come in a spray or a gel that, when applied to your hands as directed, can reduce the number of potentially disease-causing germs on your hands.

What are hand sanitizer ingredients? What do they do?

There are a few core ingredients that make up many hand sanitizer products. 

Typical active ingredients:

  • Ethanol (ethyl alcohol),
  • Isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol or 2-propanol), or
  • Benzalkonium chloride 

The active ingredients can break apart the cell membranes of many bacteria and viruses, thus destroying them (12).
Inactive ingredients:

  • Emollients (e.g., glycerin): help moisturize skin
  • Polyacrylate (e.g., sodium polyacrylate): helps to thicken and stabilizes the ingredients
  • Color
  • Fragrance: helps improve the scent
  • Water: carrier ingredient for the other active and inactive ingredients

Are hand sanitizer products regulated?   

Yes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates hand sanitizers as an over-the-counter drug. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on how to best use hand sanitizing products (1,2).

How should I store them? Do they expire?

You should keep hand sanitizers around room temperature, not above 105ºF. Storing hand sanitizers in higher temperatures, for example, in a car during the summer, could adversely impact the quality. 
They should be stored away from high heat or flame as many hand sanitizers contain flammable ingredients. 
Hand sanitizers do expire, and the FDA requires manufacturers to list an expiration date. When stored properly, they should be effective for at least three years. However, storing the hand sanitizer ingredients in hot environments could decrease the efficacy of the ingredients (1).

Do hand sanitizers protect against all transmittable diseases?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol effectively reducing and eliminating many infection-causing germs, including the germs that can cause COVID-19 infections. However, they are ineffective in killing germs like the norovirus, Cryptosporidium, and Clostridioides difficile (C. diff) (1,2).
Benzalkonium chloride-based hand sanitizers meet the FDA’s requirements for a hand sanitizer. While a preliminary study shows that benzalkonium chloride-based hand sanitizers can effectively reduce COVID-19 causing germs on hands, the CDC does not currently recommend these hand sanitizers to help reduce COVID-19 causing germs. (1,2).


What ingredients do I need to look out for? 

Hand sanitizers should not contain methanol, also known as wood alcohol. Methanol is harmful to human health, and you should not use it. 
If you find that you own a hand sanitizer product containing methanol, it’s best to dispose of it as a hazardous material (1).

What else do I need to know?

Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is still the most effective way to clean your hands. Hand sanitizers are great to use when handwashing is not available, but they do not replace proper handwashing (1,2,3).
When using a hand sanitizer, it’s essential to know that it cannot easily penetrate dirt or grease on the hands. If your hands are covered in visible dirt and grease, you need to wash your hands with soap and water rather than using a hand sanitizer (1).
Additionally, no hand-sanitizing product has been FDA-approved to prevent or treat COVID-19 infections. They can help reduce the germs on your hands, but we should follow handwashing and other public health best practices to help reduce our risk of becoming ill with a COVID-19 infection.

The good news.

Proper handwashing, hand sanitation, and other public health best practices can help keep us healthy and safe. And, hand sanitizers are one tool available to us as we head back to school and work


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