What to Know About Hand Sanitizer

Updated: Nov. 13, 2023

Keep your family clean and healthy on the go and learn more about using hand sanitizers — what types to avoid, and why all sanitizers are not created equal.

SanitizerElizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

You’ve heard the advice since you were young — wash your hands to avoid getting sick. When you can’t wash your hands with soap and water, hand sanitizer is another way to keep them clean, even when we’re on the go. It can come in appealing scents, different textures and fun squeeze bottles. But are all hand sanitizers the same? Here’s what you need to know.

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Are all hand sanitizers the same?

Not all hand sanitizers are created equal. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it’s important to use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. This type of sanitizer not only is more effective at killing germs, but non-alcohol based sanitizers can actually be harmful and can cause germs to develop resistance to sanitizing.

It’s especially important to avoid hand sanitizers that contain triclosan, a synthetic ingredient added to many antibacterial products. The FDA warns that “high doses of triclosan is associated with a decrease in the levels of some thyroid hormones [and may contribute to] making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.” The FDA also warns against these potentially toxic hand sanitizers.

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Does hand sanitizer prevent illness?

Hand sanitizer can’t rid your hands of bacteria if you’re not using it correctly. Remember to use the proper amount of sanitizer, to rub it over all surfaces of your hands, and to let the product dry. Also, don’t wipe your hands or rinse them after applying. When used correctly, alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill at least 99.9 percent of viruses, fungi and bacteria. So after you touch that public stair railing or shopping cart handle, using hand sanitizer can help you avoid a cold or flu virus. But keep in mind people often pick up a virus after inhaling droplets in the air. Unfortunately, hand sanitizer can’t help you with that.

Which is more effective — a hand sanitizer, or soap and water?

Although that tingling feeling of a hand sanitizer may feel like the best and most effective way to cleanse your hands, nothing beats plain old soap and water. The CDC says the best way to prevent the spread of infections and decrease the risk of getting sick is to regularly wash your hands, whenever possible. Try to only use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not accessible, like when you’re in the car, when you’re shopping or at a movie or concert. Also remember that hand sanitizers should not be used after handling chemicals or when hands are visibly dirty. In those cases, use soap and water. Or try this simple DIY hand scrub.

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