How Does Hand Sanitizer Kill Bacteria?

Lots of people are using hand sanitizer much more than they used to in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is definitely important so that things go back to normal sooner rather than later. But a lot of people don’t really know how hand sanitizer kills the bacteria on their hands. Hand sanitizer is a great tool, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution and it can’t kill all bacteria that might get on your hands.

Today, let’s break down exactly how hand sanitizer kills bacteria and viruses and dive into why it’s a great sanitizing solution but not a full-on replacement for hot water and soap.

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Hand Sanitizer: An Overview

Hand sanitizer (see sanitizers from Keychain) refers to a collection of products that are made by combining water and at least 60% of either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol for the purposes of disinfection. Disinfection means that the hand sanitizer gets rid of bacteria plus most other types of microbes on whatever surface sanitizer is applied.

In short:  hand sanitizer kills bacteria on the surface of your hands through utilizing alcohol as the primary and active ingredient. However, although hand sanitizer can be effective, it’s not the best solution for everything and it’s important to know how hand sanitizer works so you use it correctly and in the right way.

How Does Hand Sanitizer Work? 

Although lots of people think of hand sanitizers as one-size-fits-all cleaning solutions, these products are only really effective at killing germs under very specific circumstances. For starters, all viable hand sanitizer products must contain over 60% alcohol. This is why it’s recommended that you never use  expired hand sanitizer, as these hand sanitizer products have had their alcohol content become diluted or evaporated over time.

Ethanol and isopropyl alcohol are the two types of alcohol most commonly used, although n-propanol alcohol can also be found in some hand sanitizer products.

Alcohol is an effective anti-germ solution since it can destroy cellular membranes. Furthermore, alcohol denatures certain proteins in various types of bacterial cells. Because of this, contact with alcohol is almost immediately lethal to many types of germs and bacteria. But alcohol’s efficacy is not universal by any means.

hand sanitizer in a bottle, a soap and a flower

In fact, certain so-called “gram-positive” bacteria, like Staphylococcus, have really thick cell walls and aren’t as vulnerable to an alcohol based hand sanitizer . While they can still be killed with enough application of alcohol, a mild brush with a substance isn’t enough to get rid of those viruses in most cases.

Still, hand sanitizer works for the majority of daily bacteria and germs that our hands come into contact with. That’s why the CDC recommends that you use hand sanitizer whenever you don’t have access to hot water and soap.

Note that hand sanitizer workswithout applying a liberal amount of water to the solution or your hands. You should only ever use hand sanitizer on dry hands to make sure that the alcohol sinks into your skin and contacts as much bacteria as possible.

While this does dry out your hands (meaning you should consider using a moisturizer product after sanitizing), it’s the best way to maximize hand sanitizer’s effectiveness. In addition, lots of people have noticed that some sanitizers smell bad now. However, the smell is just an unpleasant side effect which doesn't affect how well the alcohol kills germs and bacteria.

Does Hand Sanitizer Kill the Coronavirus?

According to  news reports and the CDC, yes. Hand sanitizer can be effective at killing the COVID-19 virus since it doesn’t have a particularly durable cell wall. This makes it vulnerable to the alcohol components in all hand sanitizer products.

spraying sanitizer on the corona virus



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However, the CDC still says that washing your hands is more effective for removing most types of viruses and bacteria, even compared to the most powerful hand sanitizer product. Let’s break this down further.

Is Hand Sanitizer Better Than Soap? 

Hand sanitizer is not more effective than soap and water.  According to the CDC, soap, and water are just flatly better at getting rid of all the same kinds of germs hand sanitizers tackle, plus certain germs that are resistant to the above-mentioned alcohol effects, like the norovirus, cryptosporidium, and clostridium difficile.

How Does Hand Sanitizer Kills Bacteria?

Essentially, the combination of the abrasive and alkaline nature of soap plus the heat of hot water does wonders for breaking down cellular bodies and making it almost impossible for most viruses to survive. There’s simply no substitute for hot water and soap when it comes to totally cleaning your hands (see also our 10 brilliant winter cleaning tips).

This being said, there are times when  hand sanitizer is a more convenient or appropriate solution than soap and water.

  • For starters, hand sanitizer is a lot easier to take with you, making it a great portable cleansing solution. You can get  small bottles of hand sanitizer to stash in your purse or your car to make sure that your hands are never left dirty for too long. Dr. Brite has a great collection of hand sanitizer products available right now
  • Furthermore, hand sanitizer can be used when you don’t have any soap and water on hand.In some places, like when you’re away from public services, it can be hard to get hot water. In this case, hand sanitizer is still better than not doing anything to your hands at all

However, there are times when you shouldn’t use hand sanitizer:

  • You should never try to use hand sanitizer to get rid of harmful chemicals, such as heavy metals and pesticides. Alcohol doesn’t really do anything to these compounds, and using hand sanitizer might accidentally make your skin more vulnerable to absorbing those compounds. The only solution for these contaminants is soap and water

a female person washing her hands

Do all hand sanitizers have the same benefits?

Any hand sanitizer you do use should contain at least 60% alcohol, according to experts.

According to studies, hand sanitizers with lower alcohol concentrations or those that don't contain alcohol are less effective at eradicating germs than those that contain between 60 and 95 percent alcohol.

In particular, a none alcohol-based hand sanitizers run the risk of not working as well on various germ types and of causing some germs to develop sanitizer resistance.

When Trying to Kill Bacteria, Which Method Should You Use?

Overall, most people will benefit from using both soap and water and hand sanitizer in conjunction to ensure safety and that they have clean hands as often as possible.

Whenever you go to the office or to school for the day, start by washing your hands with hot water and soap at home. Then, make sure that you have a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you, or see if your office or workplace has a bigger bottle of hand sanitizer that everyone can share.



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Either way, sanitize your hands after touching a lot of shared objects or common spaces, like door handles, restroom areas, or desks. You should sanitize your hands at least once every few hours if you want to make sure that you kill as many bacteria as possible.

Avoid touching your face and touching germy surfaces as much as possible. Whenever you get the chance, replace hand sanitizer with hot water and soap, but don’t go overboard with either measure since you might accidentally dry out the skin of your hands, which can lead to cracks or skin breaks. Thankfully,  Dr. Brite Hand Sanitizer has aloe vera to ensure moisturized hands even after repeated use!

This can eventually lead to infection and later health risks down the road. In short:

  • Use hot water and soap whenever you can
  • If hot water and soap aren’t available or are otherwise inconvenient to use, hand sanitizer is a great second choice
  • Don’t use hand sanitizer as a full-on replacement for soap and water


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All in all, it’s a great thing that more and more people have access to hand sanitizer, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Hand sanitizer is one of the most effective tools we have to kill germs and bacteria, even though it’s best used in conjunction with traditional methods like washing your hands with hot water and soap.

Hopefully this guide offered some insight about these sanitizers we're all using. Be sure to check out our hand sanitizer products; we offer both small, personal bottles and larger bottles that you can share with your coworkers at your workplace.


1. Do hand sanitizers kill good bacteria too?

Yes, hand sanitizers kill good bacteria. That's because they contain ethyl alcohol, which is a disinfectant. It's effective at killing bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but it can also harm healthy cells.

2. Is antibacterial hand sanitizer good or bad?

Neither alcohol nor antimicrobial compounds contained in hand sanitizers pose a risk. The potential for antimicrobial resistance exists. The best way to wash with soap and warm water is nearly always to use hand sanitizers - as in hospitals or other places where there is no access to a sink.

3. Does hand sanitizer actually kill 99 of germs?

In general, real-life results are often less than 99.99 percent. In the United States, hand sanitizers should contain at least 60% alcohol; however, even then, hand sanitizers could simply not work on visibly dirty or oily hands.

4. What does it mean when the label of my hand sanitizer says alcohol?

When you are looking at a hand sanitizer label, and it says alcohol, what does that mean? In this case, the word alcohol refers to ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. This is the type of alcohol that is found in alcoholic beverages.

While ethanol is safe in moderate amounts, it can be dangerous if consumed in high doses. Too much ethanol can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be deadly.

5. What are the differences between hand washing and using hand sanitizers?

There are many benefits of hand hygiene, both from hand washing and using hand sanitizers. Hand hygiene is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of infection and illness. It is important to know the differences between hand washing and using hand sanitizers, so you can choose the right method for your needs.

Hand washing is the traditional way to clean your hands, and it involves using soap and water. Hand sanitizers are a newer option that use alcohol-based chemicals to kill germs. Hand sanitizers are available in liquid or gel form, and they can be used without water.

There are a few key differences between hand washing and using hand sanitizers. Handwashing is more effective at removing dirt, grease, and bacteria from your hands than hand sanitizers.