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How to Make Sure Your Hand Sanitizer Is Safe

Hedy Phillips
Updated Mar 2, 2021
5 min read

There are plenty of things you can do to stay safe from COVID-19. Wear your masks, wash your hands, and have hand sanitizer handy at all times. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a set of guidelines around best practices for using hand sanitizer in a healthcare setting, and the Food and Drug Administration has its own complementary set of guidelines for hand sanitizer directly relating to COVID-19 usage. 

By following both organizations’ best practices, you can make sure your hand sanitizer is as effective as possible to keep you from contracting COVID-19. Ahead, find a few key tips to always keep in mind when it comes to hand sanitizer, even when we’re not in a pandemic, including what to look for in the contents of hand sanitizer, when it’s best to use hand sanitizer, and suggestions for what to do if you can’t find any hand sanitizer.  

Check the Alcohol Percentage

The most important aspect of the hand sanitizer you’re using is the alcohol percentage. Select an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it. This is the CDC recommendation for general use but especially in light of COVID-19. The CDC actually suggests you select a hand sanitizer that’s anywhere from 60%-95% alcohol. The CDC has created an entire guide on the efficacy and best practices for hand sanitizer as it relates to COVID-19, and one of the key points is noting what exactly alcohol-based hand rub (ABHR) does. 

“ABHR effectively reduces the number of pathogens that may be present on the hands of healthcare providers after brief interactions with patients or the care environment,” the website reads, which shows how important hand sanitizer is in keeping skin clean of germs. While these recommendations are geared toward medical professionals, it applies to any usage of hand sanitizer, and the alcohol level will dictate its efficacy.

Aside from just the alcohol percentage, check the rest of the contents of your hand sanitizer as well. The CDC does not recommend hand sanitizers made with benzalkonium chloride, as “available evidence indicates benzalkonium chloride has less reliable activity against certain bacteria and viruses than either of the alcohols.”

Hand Sanitizer Is Best Used When Hands Are Not Visibly Soiled

To clean visibly soiled hands, your best option is soap and water. “Hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent infection,” said Christina Smitley, RPA-C with Advanced Dermatology PC. “Washing hands often, before you eat, after going to the bathroom, and after sneezing and coughing decreases the risk of getting sick and prevents spread of infection.” CDC guidelines recommend washing for at least 20 seconds at a time, however, the FDA notes that there's no evidence to support a need for antibacterial soap. Once your visibly soiled hands have been washed, you can then use hand sanitizer as an extra layer of cleanliness. 

If your hands are not visibly soiled, you can go right in with the hand sanitizer. The CDC actually recommends this method in healthcare settings “due to evidence of better compliance” when comparing alcohol to soap and water. This is important to keep in mind when it comes to COVID-19 when you aren’t necessarily worried about dirty hands but germs on your hands. Opt for hand sanitizer if you’re around someone who might be sick or someone with a compromised immune system. Also use hand sanitizer if you go into a medical facility. 

It’s also worth noting that hand sanitizer is an appropriate alternative when you don’t have access to a sink at all. You can use hand sanitizer a couple times over to feel cleaner. “I recommend to always have hand sanitizer available in your backpack or purse, so it is available for use in public areas where a sink is not accessible,” said Jennifer Wong, RPA-C with Advanced Dermatology PC.  

When using sanitizer, make sure to use enough to fully coat your hands and rub it in for 20 seconds (just like if you’re washing your hands). Spread it around your hands and fingers completely to make sure you’ve covered all of your skin and keep massaging it in until your hands are dry.

Don’t Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer at Home

When COVID-19 first started, understandably people started snapping up as many sanitation products as they could — including hand sanitizer. Store shelves were completely devoid of the product, leading some to try to make their own at home. While the FDA issued guidelines for companies and pharmacies to make hand sanitizer, they strongly advised against consumers doing it. 

According to the website, “If made incorrectly, hand sanitizer can be ineffective, and there have been reports of skin burns from homemade hand sanitizer. The agency lacks verifiable information on the methods being used to prepare hand sanitizer at home and whether they are safe for use on human skin.” 

While the FDA has set a protocol to increase production of hand sanitizer and it’s now more readily available, you have a few options if you are unable to find any or you just don’t have any at home. Soap and water are still the best option to clean dirty hands, but if you don’t have that, consider keeping wipes on hand or other sanitizing products if possible.

And if you do get a reaction from homemade hand sanitizer or even a store-bought hand sanitizer, contact your doctor immediately and stop using the product.

Our Take

Always have hand sanitizer on hand so that you can clean your skin in a pinch. Make sure to use one that is at least 60% alcohol so you can reduce as many pathogens on your skin as possible. If your hands are visibly dirty, wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds instead and finish with hand sanitizer.

Contributing Writer

Hedy Phillips

Hedy Phillips is a freelance journalist who has covered home security, safety, and other topics for Safety.com, MSN, Yahoo, Cosmopolitan, and InStyle.

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