Types of Hand Sanitizers and their Effectiveness


The global COVID 19  pandemic has given rise to increased awareness about the need for disinfection and sanitation. From personal hand sanitizers to hard surface disinfectant sprays, supermarkets and retail stores are filled with plenty of disinfection by-products for purchase.

In view of the rapid spread of coronavirus disease, the global health body World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended products with specific formulations for adequate protection. Ethanol and IPA (Isopropyl alcohol) based hand sanitizers are recommended for instant immediate protection. However, other chemical formulations are also available for specific uses.

The myriad of hand sanitizers available at the retail store or the pharmacy is often confusing to choose from.

Should you be trusting the pharmacist and buying the one suggested?

Should you buy particular brands only?

Are there any important specifications on the label that you should check before purchasing? 

Hand sanitizer formulation

There are primarily two types of hand sanitizers: alcohol-based and alcohol-free. 

  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizers or hand rubs contain different types of alcohol in varying amounts. The concentration of alcohol varies from anywhere between 20% to 95%, depending on the use it is specified for and the brand selling it. The types of alcohol used for are  IPA, propanol, and ethanol.
  • Alcohol-free hand sanitizers contain substances like chlorohexidine gluconate, octenidine, triclosan, and benzalkonium chloride instead of alcohol to reduce the harmful effects of microbes, but this is comparatively less effective than alcohol. However, these are effective against a wide range of viruses and bacteria which may not be exterminated by alcohol alone. Sometimes these chemicals are used as additional material in alcohol-based hand rubs to enhance germ killing power.

How do hand sanitizers work?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers break down the protein covering surrounding the cells of bacteria, fungi and viruses, including coronaviruses. This envelope of protein is essential for the survival of the germs and for them to be able to multiply and attack the human body.

The recommended percentage of alcohol that should be present for acceptable hand sanitizer effectiveness is 60% to 95%. The formulation concentration refers to the amount of alcohol present in the gel or liquid in comparison to the total amount of product. For example, a 75% concentrated hand sanitizer specification means that there are 75 millilitres of alcohol in 100 millilitres of the liquid. The rest of the volume is made up by other additives to make the product fit and safe for use.

Soap and water are the highest standard for effective germ removal. If you are not able to wash your hands with soap, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of hand sanitizers to kill disease causing germs. However, they are only effective when there is no visible dirt on the skin.

It is also important to understand that although hand sanitizers kill germs on the skin, the effect is short lived. According to research-based guidelines released by the World Health Organization (WHO), the regrowth of germs occurs shortly after the use of hand sanitizers. Thus, the product has to be used at regular intervals to prevent the attack of disease-causing germs.

How do I choose a hand sanitizer?

Hand sanitizers are sold at different concentrations and formulations in the market by a variety of brands, so it can be difficult in understanding the right product to choose for the safety of you and your loved ones. The COVID 19 outbreak has made it even more essential to buy sanitization products with enough capacity to protect against germs. It is always preferable to buy WHO hand sanitizer formulation grade products.

A research study published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal states that most supermarket and retail store brands of alcohol based hand rubs have a strength of only about 40% concentration. A product with a strength of below 60% merely slows down the growth of germs but does not kill them. It is safe to buy scientifically approved medical-grade products to ensure better protection, and more importantly, peace of mind.

So how do you choose what hand sanitizer formulation to buy?

Pure alcohol based sanitizers are useful and sufficient for daily use at home or in places calling for minimal contact with crowds, like a private office.

However, if you or your family members are traveling or commuting to work or other places with high chances of coming into contact with a lot of people, it is best to use a combination formulation like ethanol and IPA or ethanol and benzalkonium chloride. In a mixture with ethanol, these additives help protect against a wider range of germs and are also known to have a lengthier effect than alcohol alone.

Thus, it is important to check the percentage of alcohol (by volume) present in a hand sanitizer before purchasing. Most medical standards approved products have details marked on the packaging. It is always advised to consult a doctor for advice and approval as a supplementary safety measure.


Disclaimer: Issued in public interest by Axio Biosolutions Private Limited. Kindly check the official guidance on WHO for more information on infection prevention and control of covid-19.

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