How does hand sanitizer work?

How does hand sanitizer work?

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In this article, we’ll look at how hand sanitizer works (and when it doesn’t), the right way to use it, and share some simple recipes.


Alcohol based hand sanitizer (ABHS) kills microbes by disrupting their function. They get a fluid imbalance, bust open and die. (“Cottonmouth” from booze, microbe style, where your whole body is a “mouth”.)


The antimicrobial activity of alcohols can be attributed to their ability to denature and coagulate proteins. The microorganism’s cells are then lysed, and their cellular metabolism is disrupted. Alcohol solutions containing 60% to 95% alcohol are most effective. Notably, higher concentrations are less potent because proteins are not denatured easily in the absence of water.

Ethanol seems to work best against viruses, whereas propanols (like isopropyl alcohol) seem to be more effective against bacteria.

Under the right conditions, ABHS quickly reduce the number of microbes on the skin and eliminate all types of germs.

Note that 100% alcohol isn’t better than 60-95% alcohol. You need other liquid to get a fluid imbalance in the microbes. Straight alcohol dries out skin, and evaporates too quickly to evenly coat hands.

That’s why sanitizers contain emollients, like aloe vera gel, which help soften the skin.

While hand sanitizers can help prevent the spread of disease, they are not as effective hand washing, especially against certain infections.

Protozoan cysts, certain non-enveloped (non-lipophilic) viruses, and bacterial spores can survive a rub down with ABHS.

The sanitizers don’t kill cryptosporidium parasite, C. difficile spores, poliovirus, polyomavirus, calicivirus (FCV), hepatitis A virus (HAV) and foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV).

They also don’t remove chemicals or other contaminants from your hands.

In other words – it’s best to wash hands with soap and water when available.

When hands are visibly dirty, hand sanitizer isn’t likely to work very well. Please default to good old fashioned soap and water when hands get messy.

In healthcare settings or other locations where conditions are already “clean”, they are better at killing germs.

Another concern is antibiotic resistance, but so far, this has not been observed with alcohol based products. Specifically, antibacterial products containing triclosan should be avoided.

Overuse of hand sanitizer can dry out skin and disrupt pH, causing cracking and peeling. Some people may be more sensitive than others.

If dry skin is an issue for you, try a gentle hand soap such as goat milk soap.

Yes, hand sanitizer can expire, since alcohol evaporates over time, making the product less effective.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends an alcohol concentration between 60–95%.

Studies show that lower concentrations are less effective at killing germs. In fact, some commercial brands with low alcohol levels simply spread the germs around on people’s hands.

See “Hand Sanitizer Alert” at The National Center for Biotechnology Information.

As they say in The Hunger Games, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer is commonly recommended, but sold out all over. The Amazon store brand sanitizer is 70% alcohol and fairly well rated. Hopefully production will catch up to demand soon.

You can make hand sanitizer with rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel. A few drops of essential oils boosts effectiveness.

Vodka is typically 80 proof, which means that it is 40 percent alcohol. This is not high enough to effectively kill microbes.

Recipes adapted from The Herbal Academy.


Some good essential oils to use include:

For children under 10, do not use peppermint or eucalyptus oil, and reduce amount of essential oils to 10 drops.

Mix aloe vera and essential oils (if using) in a glass pint jar. Add alcohol, cover and shake until well mixed.

Label and store out of direct sunlight. Keep out of reach of children.

To use, shake well and transfer a portion into a glass dropper bottle. Squirt a few drops into the palm of one hand and rub over both hands until dry.

We have over 100 natural health and home remedies articles on the site, including:

Coronavirus – Everything You Need to Know about Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2)

Emergency Medical Kit List – Build Your Own Custom First Aid Kit

E Coli – What is it, and Why so many recalls?

Herbal Antibiotics – 15 Natural Ways to Fight Infection

6 Benefits of Cold Showers, the Cheap and Easy Health Tonic

I hope you found this post helpful to explain what hand sanitizer does and doesn’t do. Stay safe out there!

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