How to Properly Use Hand Sanitizer

And when it's a good idea

In This Article

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is simple to use, convenient, and often easy to find. While there is a correct way to use hand sanitizer to get the most benefit from it, what's probably more important is knowing when using it may not be the best choice. Hand sanitizer can help kill microbes, but it isn't effective on all germs and will do nothing for other substances that may be on your hands.

Laboratory studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show alcohol-based hand sanitizers made from 60% ethanol and 70% isopropanol are able to inactivate viruses genetically related to COVID-19. Learn about COVID-19, including symptoms and how it's diagnosed.

The CDC recommends cleaning your hands with soap and water whenever possible, as often as possible (and always when your hands are visibly soiled). Hand sanitizer can be used in addition to this or when washing isn't an option.

Use Sanitizer When...

  • You can't wash with soap and water

  • You want added protection after washing

Don't Use Sanitizer...

  • In place of washing with soap and water

  • When your hands are visibly soiled

  • When you have chemicals on your hands

How It Works

When sanitizers first came out, there was little research showing what they did and didn't do, but that has changed. More research needs to be done, but scientists are learning more all the time.

The active ingredient in hand sanitizers is isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), a similar form of alcohol (ethanol or n-propanol), or a combination of them. Alcohols have long been known to kill microbes by dissolving their protective outer layer of proteins and disrupting their metabolism.

According to the CDC, research shows that hand sanitizer kills germs as effectively as washing your hands with soap and water—unless your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. They also don't remove potentially harmful chemicals.

Hand sanitizers also don't kill some common germs soap and water do eliminate, such as:

  • Cryptosporidium
  • Clostridium difficile
  • Norovirus

Bacteria and Virus Protection

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken legal action against some hand sanitizer companies for making unproven claims against salmonella, e. Coli, Ebola, rotavirus, influenza, and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

At the same time, though, studies are beginning to suggest that alcohol-based hand sanitizers may be effective at killing some of these germs. (Even so, the companies that make them have yet to gain FDA approval for these uses, making any claims to this end illegal.)

For example:

  • A 2019 study on hospital-borne infections shows sanitizers may help slow the spread of MRSA and other infections by providing a quick, easy, and convenient way for healthcare workers to improve their hand hygiene.
  • Research published in 2015 concluded that alcohol-based sanitizers were able to reduce the populations of salmonella and E.coli.
  • Intensive hand-sanitizer use in Japan in response to a flu pandemic may have cut short-term rates of norovirus.
  • In a study on elementary schools, hand sanitizers cut absences due to illness by 26% and reduced confirmed cases of illness from the highly contagious influenza A virus by 52%. It was, however, less effective against the influenza B virus.
  • A 2018 study on daycare centers found a drop in days missed due to overall illness when the center introduced hand sanitizers and educated staff, children, and parents on their proper use.

However, it's important to remember that not all of the research is conclusive. In fact, one study on long-term healthcare facilities suggested that employees' preference for sanitizers over soap and water may have contributed to norovirus outbreaks.

Furthermore, the nuances of some of these conclusions can be confusing. For example, a study published in 2019 noted that an ethanol-based hand sanitizer reduced norovirus infection risk by 85% when there's short-term contact with the virus. However, under high-contamination conditions, such as those you might find on a cruise ship or in a long-term care facility, the sanitizer offered no protection whatsoever.

What to Look For

The CDC recommends sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content. Most products contain between 60% and 95%, but don't assume that the higher the percentages are more effective. To work at peak efficiency, these products also need to contain some water.

Some products on the market claim to sanitize your hands but contain too little alcohol or no alcohol at all. These products will likely not offer you adequate protection.

How to Use It

When hand sanitizers do work, their effectiveness is based on several factors. In addition to which product you use, they include:

  • How much you use
  • Proper technique
  • Consistency

Some situations in which use of a hand sanitizer may be appropriate include when you're riding public transportation, have shaken hands or touched an animal, after you've touched a grocery cart, and so on.

To use hand sanitizer correctly:

  • Place the recommended amount in the palm of one hand. (Read the manufacturer's directions.)
  • Rub your hands together, covering your entire hand, including between your fingers.
  • Stop rubbing in the sanitizer only once your skin is dry.

Take care to keep alcohol-based hand sanitizing gel out of the reach of young children, as it can be very dangerous if swallowed. The high alcohol content can be fatal to a young child.

When Not to Use It

Hand sanitizer should not be used instead of soap and water when:

  • Washing is convenient
  • Your hands are greasy or visibly dirty
  • You have chemicals on your hands
  • You may have been exposed to infectious agents that aren't killed by hand sanitizer
  • You're in a high-infection situation

To keep yourself and your family healthy, it's especially important to clean your hands after you've used the restroom or prepared food. Vigorously washing your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds is best.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Inaida S, Shobugawa Y, Matsuno S, Saito R, Suzuki H. Delayed norovirus epidemic in the 2009-2010 season in Japan: potential relationship with intensive hand sanitizer use for pandemic influenzaEpidemiol Infect. 2016;144(12):2561-2567. doi:10.1017/S0950268816000984

  7. Stebbins S, Cummings DA, Stark JH, et al. Reduction in the incidence of influenza A but not influenza B associated with use of hand sanitizer and cough hygiene in schools: a randomized controlled trialPediatr Infect Dis J. 2011;30(11):921-926. doi:10.1097/INF.0b013e3182218656

  8. Azor-Martinez E, Yui-Hifume R, Muñoz-Vico FJ, et al. Effectiveness of a hand hygiene program at child care centers: A cluster randomized trialPediatrics. 2018;142(5):e20181245. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-1245

  9. Blaney DD, Daly ER, Kirkland KB, Tongren JE, Kelso PT, Talbot EA. Use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers as a risk factor for norovirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities in northern New England: December 2006 to March 2007Am J Infect Control. 2011;39(4):296-301. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2010.10.010

  10. Wilson AM, Reynolds KA, Jaykus LA, Escudero-Abarca B, Gerba CP. Comparison of estimated norovirus infection risk reductions for a single fomite contact scenario with residual and nonresidual hand sanitizersAm J Infect Control. 2019;S0196-6553(19)30846-6. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2019.09.010

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