NOV 29, 2017 1:56 PM PST

Do Hand Sanitizers Really Work?

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker

If you're out to eat and don't want to run to the bathroom to wash your hands before your meal, you might turn to the pocket-size hand sanitizer you have with you. What's in it, and how effective is it at eliminating pathogens?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are normally 70 percent alcohol, containing either ethanol, isopropanol, or N-Propanol. Whatever the specific ingredient, they are included in sanitizers because of their ability to destroy bacteria and viruses by attacking lipid and protein molecules on their outer coat.

Another component of alcohol-based hand sanitizers is glycerol, which is technically also a type of alcohol but it is included instead because it provides the "goopiness" of sanitizers. Plus, glycerol helps to prevent ethanol and isopropanol from drying out the skin. Lastly, hand sanitizers will also contain foul-tasting compounds to discourage people from drinking it instead of cleaning their hands.

There is a valid concern about the creation of superbugs with antibiotics and antimicrobial hand soaps, but alcohol-based hand sanitizers are mostly safe to use. Bacteria can't develop resistance to alcohol's destructive effects.

Lastly, do sanitizers really kill "99.9 percent of germs" like most labels say that they can? Researchers say that in the lab they can, but real life conditions usually prevents them from doing so. The amount of oil and dirt on hands, varying alcohol content, and different types of germs are all factors that affect how successful hand sanitizers are.
About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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