One of the best ways to prevent a coronavirus infection is to wash your hands with soap and water — and when soap and water aren’t available, public health experts say alcohol-based hand sanitizer is the next best option.
But just how effective are gels and sprays when it comes to getting rid of dangerous germs, such as the coronavirus? Here are seven things you should know about hand sanitizer.
1. Hand sanitizer kills germs but doesn’t clean your hands Soap and water reign supreme when it comes to infection control, but believe it or not, soap and water do not kill germs; they remove them. The duo’s effectiveness boils down to the mechanics of handwashing. The rubbing and scrubbing of soap between your palms and fingers creates friction that breaks down the structure of the bacteria and loosens the germs from your skin, explains Maryanne McGuckin, an infection prevention specialist. When you rinse your hands under water, you wash those germs down the drain.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, on the other hand, do kill germs on the skin — most germs, anyway. Hand sanitizer is less effective at killing certain viruses . Scientists suspect hand sanitizer does, however, kill the coronavirus.
2. Sanitizer trumps soap and water in certain situations Because handwashing, when done properly, is better at getting rid of germs and grime, hand sanitizer, for the most part, should be used as a backup to soap and water. “The time to use hand sanitizer is when you can’t get to a sink and some clean water and a clean towel,” says Elaine Larson. That said, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer as a first choice in certain situations, such as before and after visiting a friend or loved one in a hospital or nursing home. A squirt of hand sanitizer on your way in and out reduces the likelihood you’ll introduce a dangerous bug or leave with one. It’s also a good idea to use hand sanitizer regularly when interacting with people who have weakened immune systems, Larson says.
3. Not all hand sanitizers are equal To kill most disease-causing germs, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Anything less than that may not work as well “for many types of germs,” and could “merely reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them outright,” the CDC says.
When searching the shelves, you may come across hand sanitizers that contain benzalkonium chloride instead of alcohol. These products, however, are not recommended by the CDC, since “available evidence indicates benzalkonium chloride has less reliable activity against certain bacteria and viruses” compared to alcohol-based sanitizers.