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Hand sanitizer has become highly sought-after due to the coronavirus, much like face masks and UV sanitizers. During the early days of the pandemic, popular purveyors of hand sanitizers were unable to make enough to satisfy the increased demand, causing some companies from distilleries to fashion brands to step up and make the product. Almost a year later, hand sanitizer brands that were previously sold-out in stores and online — like Purell, Germ-X and Lysol— are able to meet the influx of consumers.
Just as scientists and doctors are learning more about how to effectively double mask, they also know more about what types of hand sanitizers are safe to use, leading to updated guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
When you don’t have ready access to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, the CDC recommends you use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing 60 percent ethyl alcohol, which is often listed on the label as ethanol, ethyl alcohol, isopropanol or 2-propanol. Additionally, in Nov. 2020, the CDC listed what to to avoid while shopping for a hand sanitizer:
- Hand sanitizers that contain less than 60 percent alcohol
- Hand sanitizers listed on the FDA’s Hand Sanitizer Do-Not-Use List
- Hand sanitizers that are labeled “alcohol-free”
- Hand sanitizers packaged in a container that resembles a food or beverage container
What to consider when shopping for hand sanitizers
With the concerns about hand sanitizer safety and contamination, Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in New York, advised playing it safe and purchasing a hand sanitizer brand you know and trust or ones with “good reputations [that] have been on the market for a while.” Beyond the alcohol advisory from the CDC — at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol — Engelman advised looking for hand sanitizers with hydrating ingredients, including aloe vera, which is “less harsh on your skin, especially as we're all using [hand sanitizers] more these days,” she said.
Having championed the use of hand sanitizer, it’s important to note that, overall, medical experts we consulted overall agree with the FDA and CDC that washing your hands with soap and water is better than using hand sanitizer. However, MDs pointed out, there is a time and place for hand sanitizer. Typically, it’s when you don’t have access to warm water and soap, like when you’re on the go and happen to sneeze.
To help you make sense of recent developments in hand sanitizers, we asked MDs for their expert tips and guidance on how to buy safe and effective hand sanitizer. We listed their picks below, along with other CDC- and FDA- compliant options.
Which hand sanitizer is best?
Harold Lancer, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills and founder of Lancer Skincare, recommended this affordable hand sanitizer. “I prefer soap and water, to tell you the truth, but if I had to pick, Germ-X is a great choice,” he said. “Made up of 63 percent ethyl alcohol, it will fight off germs and the novel COVID-19.” You can order a 32-ounce four-pack of Germ-X or an 8-ounce 12-pack to keep handy while running or swimming or during a socially-distanced picnic.
King said her personal favorite hand sanitizer is EO Hand Sanitizer Lavender Gel because she “loves the way it smells and its ingredients are safe: Alcohol sourced from non-GMO sugar cane, vegetable glycerin and jojoba seed oil.” There’s also glycerin and dimethicone, which together help hydrate and moisturize the skin, combating the drying effects of alcohol. The hand sanitizer isn’t just made with good-for-you ingredients, it also has a “wonderful fragrance” thanks to a blend of essential oils. If you’re sensitive to smells, opt for the Unscented version, which King said is “safer for eczema-prone skin or sensitized individuals.”
70 percent ethyl alcohol in ClimbOn Hand Spray exceeds the CDC requirement. ClimbOn says their plant-based and cruelty-free hand sanitizer is safe for sensitive skin, too. There’s aloe vera gel in it, which helps soothe your skin, and MCT oil, which is rich in hydrating fatty acids. Lemon and clove oils help leave behind a light, refreshing scent. Other hand sanitizers to consider include sprays from OLIKA, Noshinku, Hello Belloand OH.SO.
“These hand sanitizers are not only cute, but they also come in eight different fragrances like Watermelon, Aloe Vera and Mint so you don't have to worry about the overpowering alcohol smell,” said Engelman. “They are formulated with aloe vera and essential oils to help keep the skin moisturized without leaving a sticky film.” Touchland hand sanitizer contains 67 percent ethyl alcohol, which is above the CDC requirement.
Purell contains 70 percent ethanol. The gel hand sanitizer is paraben-, aluminum- and dye-free. It’s available in large sizes to keep around the house, as well as in travel-size bottles to take with you on the go.
This gel hand sanitizer is the No. 1 selling product on Curie’s website. It comes in three scents: Orange Neroli, White Tea and Grapefruit Cassis. The hand sanitizer contains 70 percent ethyl alcohol and is made with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, prickly pear seed oil and glycerin.
Pipette, a brand that makes baby skincare and pregnancy-safe products, sells hand sanitizer that contains 65 percent ethyl alcohol. It’s fragrance-free and certified vegan. Pipette Hand Sanitizer is made with sugarcane-derived squalane, an ingredient that moisturizes hands, as well as glycerin, which helps hands retain moisture and stay soft. Bravo Sierra is also a gel hand sanitizer to consider.
Engelman says she “loves” CBD for Life products and was “excited” when they debuted their hemp seed extract-infused hand sanitizers. They’re available in gel and spray formulas and come in various sizes — 1.7 ounces and 10 ounces– so you can pick what is most convenient for you. “These formulas contain 70 percent ethanol alcohol, so above the CDC requirements,” she adds.
King also recommended Stay Clean's Moisturizing Hand Gel Sanitizer, which has 72 percent alcohol. “It contains soothing aloe and it's fragrance-free,” she said. The CDC recommends using alcohol-based hand sanitizer before and after visiting someone in the hospital or nursing home, “unless the person is sick with Clostridioides difficile (if so, use soap and water to wash hands).”
Mega Babe Squeaky Clean Hand Sanitizer is made with 62 percent ethyl alcohol to help kill bacteria. It’s free of problematic ingredients like synthetic fragrance, parabens, phthalates and sulfates. Instead, there are hydrating ingredients in it like aloe vera and marula and sweet almond oils, helping you avoid dry, cracked hands. The pocket-sized hand sanitizer, which has a light citrus scent, is convenient for when you’re on the go. If you prefer a larger size, consider the 16-ounce bottle of Squeaky Clean hand sanitizer with a pump to keep by your work-from-home desk for quick access.
What to avoid while shopping for hand sanitizers
Overall, the CDC recommends checking the FDA’s Hand Sanitizer Do-Not-Use List. According to the FDA, only ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol (also known as 2-propanol) are acceptable in hand sanitizer. Other types of alcohol are not acceptable, notably methyl (other common names include methanol and wood alcohol) and 1-propanol (sometimes referred to as 1-propanol), both of which are toxic to humans.
In response to issues involving methanol-tainted hand sanitizer, the FDA released guidance for testing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol for methanol contamination prior to using the alcohols to produce products like hand sanitizer. The FDA also just placed all alcohol-based hand sanitizers from Mexico on import alert to help stop products that appear to be in violation from entering the U.S. until the FDA can review the products’ safety.
How does hand sanitizer really work?
Remember, the CDC advises you use alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol. Why? According to Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, “this percentage of alcohol is effective in killing bacteria and viruses on our hands. It works by denaturing the protective outer proteins of microbes and dissolving their membranes.”
How long does it take for hand sanitizer to kill germs?
Engelman calls the wait time “a pretty quick process.” The CDC recommends rubbing your hands together for about 20 seconds after you apply hand sanitizer, allowing the formula to completely dry. The dry time is critical to increasing the efficacy of your hand sanitizer, according to the pros.
“Rinsing or wiping off hand sanitizer can cause it to be less effective,” said Engelman. King agreed and added you should read the label of your hand sanitizer to ensure you’re using the directed amount.
How long is hand sanitizer effective?
Audrey Kunin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of DERMAdoctor, Inc., said hand sanitizers work for a “mere two minutes, but they are an important two minutes, killing potentially dangerous bacteria already present on the skin.” She added the two-minute period is why she recommends continual hand washing and frequent use of hand sanitizer throughout the day: Doing so helps with “ridding skin of new bacterial exposure.”
Engelman concurred and said, “Those two minutes can mean the difference in transmitting germs or not.” In other words, hand sanitizer is not a preventative measure and only helps rid your hands of germs already on them, not the ones yet to come.
Kunin and King both noted it’s important to check the expiration date on your hand sanitizer because the alcohol content can evaporate over time. “Just like all over the counter (OTC) drugs, hand sanitizers have expiration dates,” said Kunin. King added hand sanitizer usually expires within three years after its manufacture date. “Once it drops below 60 percent alcohol, it won't be as effective at killing germs,” King reminded.