Hand sanitizer is a spotlight product these days, given the COVID-19 pandemic. But how exactly does it work? And how does hand sanitizer compare to soap and water? Here, we break down everything you need to know about hand sanitizer effectiveness and hand hygiene best practices, so you know how to stay healthy.
How Hand Sanitizer Works
Hand sanitizers are typically alcohol-based, Over-the-Counter drug products that work to kill microbes on the skin after application. Hand sanitizer’s germ fighting, antimicrobial kick mainly comes from the denaturing (breaking) of the proteins that make up the structure of bacteria and viruses. Once these proteins are all broken apart, the germs fall apart as well- and voila, your hands are sanitized!
Fun fact: every time you cook an egg, you’re denaturing its proteins, too.
Sanitizers can be helpful hygiene products to take with you on the go, when soap and running water aren’t readily available (more on that below). They’re also great to keep in rooms or public areas without areas for hand washing, but where health and hygiene are still priorities.
So if sanitizers are seemingly such an easy solution to hygiene, then why does the CDC still recommend washing hands with soap and water as the best method to prevent the spread of illness-causing pathogens?
When to Use Hand Sanitizer VS Soap and Water
While sanitizer can be effective against many germs when used properly, here’s the rub (pun intended): most people aren’t actually using hand sanitizer properly. This means that they’re still potential germ spreaders, even when they think their hands are clean!
For a sanitizer to be effective, alcohol requires the presence of water to properly denature the proteins in germs (so sanitizers made with pure alcohol don’t work too well). This means that in order to give the sanitizer a chance to do its job, your hands need to be rubbed with sanitizer for at least 20 seconds before it completely dries up.
Why so long? Let’s bring back the egg example from earlier- you can think of this as the “cook time” to denature those germ proteins. If you don’t give the egg enough time in the hot pan, your egg isn’t going to cook. Similarly, in order to use hand sanitizer effectively, you have to give the alcohol and water enough time to properly break apart germ proteins. This requires a much larger pump of sanitizer than most people are used to. Medical professionals are trained on this, but the average person tends to not apply enough sanitizer for it to truly work as intended.
Finally, even when proper sanitizer technique is used, sanitizers can lack efficacy if your hands are dirty or greasy, since germs can hide in the dirt on hands and avoid being killed without soap and running water. Read more here about how soap works and why washing with soap and water should be your first line of defense.
A Solid Part of a Soap-First Hygiene Approach
With all of that in mind, when sanitizer is used properly it can be a highly effective measure to ensure proper hygiene when washing hands with soap and water isn’t an option. Whatever approach you take to keep your hands clean, be sure to stay up to date with CDC guidelines and follow medical experts’ tips to stay healthy.
Stay safe out there, and keep Squatchin’!
About the Author
Mason Montgomery, Product Development Manager @ Dr. Squatch
Mason is a scientist and avid music lover working at Dr. Squatch as a Product Development Manager.
Before joining the Squatch Nation, Mason worked at Unilever on the Research & Development team for various global brands. He has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University.