Here's What Exactly to Look for In a Hand Sanitizer

Plus, nine toxic hand sanitizers that the FDA warns could be deadly.

Hand Sanitizer
Photo: Getty Images

Just a few months ago, hand sanitizer was something you probably didn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about or shopping for. Maybe you kept some Purell in the bottom of your bag to use after touching the subway pole on your morning commute, maybe not. Now, the product is as trendy and in-demand as the latest Glossier launch. Along with your face mask, it's probably the one item you won't leave the house without.

Bad news: Purell is still tricky to track down. Good news: Several beauty brands like ORLY, Peter Thomas Roth, and Kylie Skin, have turned their focus towards making hand sanitizer to meet the surging demand.

So, now that you can find the stuff (more info on where to shop for hand sanitizer online ahead), it's time for a quick refresh on the most important questions when it comes to hand sanitizer. Namely, when and how often should you be using it? And how effective is hand sanitizer really when it comes to coronavirus? Ahead, experts answer these questions about hand sanitizer and more. (And FYI, there really is a "right" way to apply it.)

How Does Hand Sanitizer Work?

Here's a quick science lesson: Alcohol-based antiseptics (read: everything from Purell to your trusted Bath & Body Works scented hand sanitizers) work by breaking down the tiny microorganisms on your hands, therefore making them noninfectious, says Andres Romero, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John's Health Center.

The alcohol in hand sanitizer breaks down fat, which is the main component in an organism's membrane, Dr. Romero explains. To put it simply, that membrane protects the virus, ensuring it will hang around long enough to make you sick. When you use hand sanitizer, that protective bubble pops, killing the germs.

So How Effective Is Hand Sanitizer At Killing Germs?

First thing's first: Per the CDC, the exact contribution of using hand sanitizer when it comes to the spread of coronavirus is still unknown, however data shows that alcohol-based hand sanitizers in the right concentration can inactivate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The magic number to look for? "Alcohol solutions containing 60 to 95 percent alcohol are the most effective," Dr. Romero says, adding that these hand sanitizers usually carry a water component that also helps to break down the viral and/or bacterial germs on your hands.

But it's important to note that while hand sanitizer can help with the spread of the cold and flu, they aren't effective for all bacteria and viruses, explains Christina Wojewoda, M.D., a spokesperson for the College of American Pathologists. For example, bacteria that make spores — like C. diff, which is a bacteria that causes diarrhea and colitis — is not killed by hand sanitizer. And hand sanitizer can't kill norovirus, a highly contagious stomach bug, either. Instead, the CDC recommends washing your hands before and after each time you come in contact with the virus (say, because you are taking care of a sick kid), as well as disinfecting surfaces that have been exposed to norovirus with a bleach and water solution.

Another catch: "Hand sanitizers don't work if your hands are visibly dirty, if you have been handling contaminated food, or if you have harmful chemicals like pesticides on your hands," Dr. Wojewoda says. "I would always recommend hand washing with soap and water, and if that isn't available, then you can turn to hand sanitizer."

"You should wash your hands before, during, and after preparing food, before eating, after taking care of someone who is sick, after using the toilet (or taking care of someone who went to the bathroom), after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, taking care of pets, and touching garbage," she says. (Makes the world sound gross, right?)

What's the Right Way to Use Hand Sanitizer?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others, but it's important to use them the right way in order for them to work.

This means applying the product to the palm of one hand and rubbing it all over the surfaces of your hands — the top of your hands, palms, and between your fingers — until your hands are dry, according to the CDC. Make sure you check the label to see how much you should use because amounts vary by brand, Dr. Wojewoda says.

Bottom line: Hand sanitizers are a solid in-the-moment way to clean your hands after coming in contact with what Dr. Romero calls a "high burden" surface, for instance, a door handle. Just be sure you're using enough of the product and not wiping it off before it has dried. And once you're in a spot where soap and water are handy, take a moment to wash your hands, wiping out any germs that may still be hanging around.

One final note: Hand sanitizer has a shelf life of about three years, so be sure to check that yours hasn't expired. It also shouldn't be stored in temps above 105°F, so don't leave it in your car during the hot summer months.

Do Natural Hand Sanitizers Work?

Traditional, alcohol-based hand sanitizers like Purell aren't your only option anymore; some are made with thymol, a botanical oil with natural antimicrobial properties, or with topical antibacterial and antiseptic agents like benzalkonium chloride and cetrimonium chloride.

It's important to note, however, that the CDC says alcohol-free products are less effective at killing germs. Our experts agree: The number one thing to keep in mind when choosing a hand sanitizer is that the formula should contain at least 60 percent alcohol, Dr. Wojewoda says.

So, while there are plenty of new products out there that are marketed as 'natural' (alcohol, by the way, is natural) and may contain essential oils or other botanical ingredients, it's best to find one that still contains enough alcohol to reap the benefits of using a hand sanitizer. (For example, you can opt for a hand sanitizer with skin-soothing, from-the-earth ingredients like aloe vera and chamomile as long as you also see that the alcohol content is over 60 percent.)

Oh and if you're thinking of trying DIY, just don't. Per the FDA, making your own homemade hand sanitizer homemade can lead to an ineffective product at best and skin burns at worst.

Toxic Hand Sanitizers to Avoid

Sadly, the pandemic has led many companies to market both ineffective and dangerous products that claim to "cure" or prevent the virus. This week, the FDA has warned consumers that several types of hand sanitizers made in Mexico may contain methanol, a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested.

"Methanol is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizers and should not be used due to its toxic effects," the FDA states. "Substantial methanol exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system, or death."

While the FDA has contacted the manufacturer, Eskbiochem SA de CV, to remove their hand sanitizers from the market, the company has yet to take action. Here, the nine hand sanitizer products that you should steer clear from at all costs:

  • All-Clean Hand Sanitizer
  • Esk Biochem Hand Sanitizer
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 75% Alcohol
  • Lavar 70 Gel Hand Sanitizer
  • The Good Gel Antibacterial Gel Hand Sanitizer
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 80% Alcohol
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 75% Alcohol
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 80% Alcohol
  • Saniderm Advanced Hand Sanitizer

The Best Hand Sanitizers to Shop Online Now

The updated list of options below are currently available to add to your online shopping cart — and meet the minimum 60 percent alcohol requirement, per the CDC.

  • megababe Squeaky Clean Hand Sanitizer, $6;
  • ORLY Hand Sanitizer Spray (4-pack), $5.45;
  • maude clean no. 0 hydrating and rinse-free sanitizing spray, $10;
  • TONYMOLY Aloe Chok Chok 62% Alcohol Hand Sanitizing Gel, $6;
  • Jao Hand Refresher, $14;
  • Peter Thomas Roth Hand Sanitizer Alcohol Antiseptic 80% Topical Solution, $16;
  • Touchland Power Mist Watermelon, $9;
  • Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Lavender Hand Sanitizer; $8.00;
  • OH.SO Sweet Orange Hands Sanitizer; $6,
  • MedZone Hand Sanitizer Gel (3-pack); $18,

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real-time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.

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