Tons of people are buying hand sanitizer where they wouldn’t have bothered before. But although this is a big boost to public safety, it can also lead to some miscommunications or misunderstandings. Many people might purchase a bottle of subpar hand sanitizer that doesn’t have the required concentration of alcohol for it to be effective.
Just how much alcohol do you really need in hand sanitizer for it to work? This guide will answer that question and explain why you need so much alcohol for hand sanitizer to work in the first place.
How Does Hand Sanitizer Kill Germs?
Let’s first do an overview of hand sanitizer to see why it’s many folks' go-to solution for cleaning their hands these days.
In a nutshell, hand sanitizers are products made by combining water and concentrated isopropyl alcohol or ethanol. The alcoholic active ingredients, when they come into contact with various types of germs and bacteria, can break through cellular walls and denature the proteins within those cells.
As a result, they effectively destroy bacteria upon contact, rendering them harmless even if bits of the cells are still accidentally absorbed by your body.
However, hand sanitizer is not 100% effective and cannot kill all types of bacterial cells. There are some types of cells, like norovirus, that are resistant to the effects of alcohol and that can still be dangerous if you don’t use hot water and soap. Hot water and soap are ultimately more effective, though hand sanitizer makes for a great portable sanitizing solution if hot water and soap are not readily available.
Why is Alcohol So Effective?
But why exactly does alcohol have this effect on cellular membranes?
Basically, alcoholic contact with some types of cellular membranes causes a chemical process called denaturation. This means that the alcohol molecules bind with the fat membranes that encase a bacteria cell: such membranes are also known as cellular walls. Since the alcohol molecules can draw a cell’s fat membrane away, it stretches the membrane and breaks it down over time.
This, then, exposes the inside of the cell, which renders its organelles and DNA proteins vulnerable to destruction. The cell is torn apart and the alcohol destroys or denatures the inside of the cell, turning it into a puddle of organic slush.
This is actually the exact same process that happens when you wash your hands with hot water and soap. But soap is even more effective since it’s incredibly alkaline and it wears down cellular walls more directly.
Most hand sanitizer products use either ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol or isopropyl-2. Ethanol is the same kind of alcohol you can find in alcoholic beverages, while isopropyl alcohol is the same kind of alcohol found in rubbing alcohol products.
How Much Alcohol Do You Need in Hand Sanitizer?
So, the big question: just how much alcohol is necessary in hand sanitizer for it to be effective?
According to the FDA and the CDC, hand sanitizer products are only really safe if they have a concentration of at least 60% alcohol. Some products go as high as 90%, though of course a hand sanitizer can’t be 100% alcohol without being unsafe to rub on human skin.
When hand sanitizer has a concentration of between 60 and 90% alcohol, it's particularly effective at killing most types of bacteria, fungi, and germs. Higher concentrations of alcohol will result in a more potent product that also dries out your skin more, so keep this in mind if you have naturally dry skin and are trying to select a hand sanitizer product to use over the long-term.
Many folks wonder whether hand sanitizer can kill the coronavirus. The answer is yes, especially if it’s at the above concentrations. However, the CDC also says that soap and water are better at killing COVID-19 and practically any other virus or bacteria variety. Try to use both sanitizing methods in conjunction with one another for the best results.
What If Your Hand Sanitizer has Less than 60%?
If your hand sanitizer is advertised as having less than 60% alcohol, it’s not nearly as effective as it could be. Furthermore, it likely won’t be regulated or licensed as a real sanitizing product by the FDA, so take care when purchasing any of these types of products.
This is why all of Dr. Brite’s hand sanitizer products are made with 70% isopropyl alcohol, making them even more effective than many conventional sanitizer solutions. Our stuff is so potent it’s medical-grade, meaning it’s effective enough to be used in hospitals and clinics across the country.
If your hands are particularly sensitive to the drying effect of alcohol, rest easy -- Dr. Brite’s Hand Sanitizer uses aloe vera as part of the formula to make sure your hands don’t dry out even after a day of sanitizing.
It’s not worthwhile to go for a hand sanitizer product with a lighter concentration of alcohol just to make the experience gentler on your skin. Remember, this is all about safety!
What If Your Hand Sanitizer Expires
Your hand sanitizer might be advertised as having 60% or higher alcohol concentration, but it may really be potent anymore if it is an expired bottle. “Expired” hand sanitizer is a real thing, and it just means that the sanitizer solution has been exposed to the air for long enough that some of the alcohol within the solution has likely evaporated or bled away over time.
Basically, alcohol evaporates passively over months and years. Even new sanitizer bottles are not completely sealed, so a little bit of air exchange occurs no matter what. This is why all licensed and FDA-approved hand sanitizer products have expiration dates somewhere on the bottle. This tells you when you should stop relying on the hand sanitizer to be as effective as advertised.
This doesn’t mean that expired hand sanitizer is completely worthless. It’s still undoubtedly better to use an expired hand sanitizer product than it is to not sanitize your hands at all. But take care to purchase a new hand sanitizer when your current bottles expire.
This way, you know that the hand sanitizer you use has the appropriate concentration of 60% or more alcohol and will actually kill the majority of bacteria on your skin.
Why Do You Need 60-90%?
The 60 to 90% range isn’t arbitrary. Instead, it’s the recommended concentration of alcohol since it guarantees that the solution is strong enough to get rid of most bacteria on a given surface. It’s a numbers game – the more concentrated the alcohol content is, the more dangerous the hand sanitizer is for any bacteria that might be living on your hands.
In the end, the facts are pretty clear: to be effective, a hand sanitizer product needs an alcohol concentration of between 60% and 90%. Keep these numbers in mind as you shop for new bottles of sanitizer, and rest assured that all the hand sanitizer on Dr. Brite’s website meet this recommendation (in fact, we go a little above up to 70% to make sure that our users are safe!).
Let us know if we can answer any more hand sanitizer questions for you and be sure to check out our hand sanitizer offerings before you go!