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Hand sanitizer has become part of our daily lives. We put it on when we come home, after a day out in the world. We put it on when going into shops and restaurants. We even have hand sanitizer at our workplaces. But do you ever stop to question: how does hand sanitizer actually work?

If you are one of the people who have wondered this, look no further for you scientific explanation.

What is in hand sanitizer?

There are lots of different brands that provide hand sanitizers and each works to kill germs.

The FDA says that a product can only be marketed as hand sanitizer if it contains one of these three things as its active ingredient:

  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Ethyl alcohol (you may know this better as ethanol)
  • Isopropyl alcohol (you may know this better as isopropanol).

Most hand sanitizers use the alcohol options as its active ingredient. Alcohol is made up of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. These options are usually chosen because they are highly soluble in water. The higher the alcohol percentage in a hand sanitizer, the more successful the hand sanitizer at killing germs.

How does hand sanitizer work?

Alcohol (the active ingredient in hand sanitizer) is able to destroy pathogens (the agents that cause disease in people) because they can break apart proteins. This splits cells into pieces, or causes problems in a cell’s metabolism. Once the cell of the pathogen can’t work, the pathogen itself cannot make you sick.

There is one added benefit of the alcohol in hand sanitizers is that bacteria that comes into contact with it doesn’t develop resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a real problem threatening the future, so the knowledge that bacteria won’t develop a resistance to hand sanitizer is reassuring. You can use hand sanitizer as much as you like, and it won’t stop being effective. Your hands might get quite dry, though.

As mentioned earlier, bacteria doesn’t develop resistance to hand sanitizer. However, viruses are more resistant to hand sanitizer. Luckily, this isn’t the case for coronavirus, which has the coating surrounding it that hand sanitizer can attack.

Is hand sanitizer better than washing your hands?

The FDA still maintains that hand washing is actually better in the face of coronavirus than hand sanitizer. But given everything we’ve just learned about hand sanitizer, how can this be true? How can hand washing be better than hand sanitizer?

A 2019 study by the American Society for Microbiology found that using running water and soap to clean your hands is much more effective than a single dab of hand gel. This is because it’s easy to accidently not rub in the gel completely, whereas soap and running water will cover all areas of your hand.

Washing with soap will dislodge viral cells from your hand. Then, rinsing with water will remove these dangerous cells completely.

Keep hand sanitizer with you.

So, hand sanitizer works by breaking down the protein in bacterial and viral cells, effectively killing them. But still, washing with soap and water is better. That being said, it’s still a good plan to have some hand sanitizer on you.

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