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Hand sanitizer graphicIn the midst of the Coronavirus concern, good hand hygiene is more relevant than ever. We’ve covered handwashing and hand soaps, but what about situations when soap and running water are not available to us? In these circumstances we need the next best thing: hand sanitizer.

There is one key thing you need to know to determine if a hand sanitizer will be effective: that is the level of alcohol content. The CDC maintains its recommendation to use an alcohol-based sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Beyond that, like soap, there can be many other seemingly helpful ingredients. But those ingredients may carry other concerns and not actually be most effective at killing Coronavirus germs.


What’s commonly found in hand sanitizers:

Antibacterials: Do you reach for soaps and hand sanitizers labeled as “antibacterial” hoping they’ll help keep you from getting sick or spreading germs? As we covered in the handwashing article, the FDA has ruled that there is not sufficient evidence that these sorts of products have any greater effect on illness over using plain soap and water. The results of their final rule on consumer hand sanitizers was much the same as the final rule on antibacterial hand soaps, calling for the removal of many antibacterial ingredients. In their ruling, the FDA also deferred a final statement for three active ingredients – benzalkonium chloride, ethyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol – to allow for further investigation.

The effectiveness of antibacterial ingredients is not the only cause for concern. There is increasing awareness that the widespread use of these antibacterial ingredients could be encouraging the emergence and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In addition, concerns surrounding the direct health impacts of these ingredients are also present. For example, triclosan (one of the most commonly used antibacterial agents), has been linked to hormone disruption and increased risk of breast cancer. So as it turns out, there is mounting evidence indicating that the general consumer use of products containing antibacterial ingredients in the name of health may actually be doing more harm than good!

Alcohol: Alcohols are widely used as the active ingredient in consumer hand sanitizers. In the 1994 tentative final monograph for over-the-counter consumer antiseptic products published in the Federal Register, alcohol had been proposed for Category I classification (meaning that it would be generally recognized as safe and effective). In their most recent ruling, the FDA deferred a final rule on two commonly used alcohol ingredients – ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol – pursuing further study regarding their safety and effectiveness to fill in existing data gaps.

For the time being, the CDC maintains its recommendation to use an alcohol-based sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol in situations where soap and water are not available.

How to use hand sanitizers:

  1. Apply product covering entire surface of the hands
  2. Rub hands together until hands feel dry
  3. Do not wipe or rinse off product before it is dry as this may decrease its effectiveness

A final thought

Proper hand hygiene can prove invaluable in this current situation. Being knowledgeable about the ingredients within the products you use and their efficacy (or lack thereof) can serve as a reminder of what truly makes handwashing effective and why. Don’t underestimate the power a small habit such as handwashing can have, even in the midst of days that feel uncertain.

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