Doctors Explain How to Use Hand Sanitizer Properly—Plus, They Share When It's Most Effective
Hand sanitizer has become something of a holy grail as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The demand has become so high that small businesses have popped up left and right to counteract the shortage of top brands, like Purell and Germ-X, in hopes of giving people a fighting chance for proper hand hygiene. For anyone other than medical practitioners, the CDC recognizes washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as the most hygienic option. This is because hand sanitizer doesn't strip the hands of dirt, grease, potential harmful chemicals, and many types of germs like cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile.
However, soap and water aren't always "on hand." For these times, hand sanitizer is your next best choice. Here's everything you need to know about proper use, as explained by medical professionals.
When to Use Hand Sanitizer
When you're running essentials errands, like grocery shopping, going to the pharmacy, getting gas, and so on, you're undoubtedly touching high-contact surfaces that put you at risk. That's when hand sanitizer makes its case. "Whenever possible, washing hands with soap and water is more effective," says Sachin Nagrani, MD and Medical Director for Heal. "Hand sanitizer is great for use outside the home after touching any potentially contaminated surface, such as a door handle."
"Sanitizer use is important, and especially critical in the current environment, after coming in contact with any items that may have been touched by others as well as prior to touching similar items," adds Dr. Grigoriy Mashkevich, MD, facial plastic surgeon at Specialty Aesthetic Surgery. "In a medical sphere, this also applies to contact with other individuals, such as patients requiring examination." Other situations that call for hand sanitizer include when you're riding public transportation, handling money, touching elevator buttons or door handles, or handling things like mail and packages.
The Most Effective Type of Hand Sanitizer
Hand sanitizer is in short supply, so you might be tempted to grab a few bottles of the first option you come across, but it's important to remember that not all brands are created equal. The CDC recommends using a sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol content. The active ingredient in hand sanitizers to look for is isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), a similar form of alcohol (ethanol or n-propanol), or a combination of them. It should also contain some water to boost effectiveness. Some products on the market claim to sanitize, but offer below the recommended amount of alcohol, or no alcohol at all, and should therefore be avoided.
"If it is not possible to use soap and water, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol can reduce the risk of getting sick or transmitting sickness to others," notes Dr. Lucky Sekhon, fertility specialist and board certified OBGYN in New York City. "Sanitizers with lower concentrations of alcohol may not successfully eradicate all types of bacteria or germs and may be more bacteriostatic (reduce growth) than bactericidal (killing bacteria)."
How to apply hand sanitizer.
Much like washing your hands, there's a protocol to applying hand sanitizer. Unless you're applying it correctly, you may be lessening its effectiveness and potentially leaving harmful microbes on your hands. There are three important things to keep in mind when applying hand sanitizer: how much you use, your technique, and consistency. "When using hand sanitizer, it is important to use an adequate amount to cover all surfaces on both hands and all fingers, and rub until hands are dry," says Dr. Sekhon. "This usually means at least a quarter-size amount."
Don't neglect the skin leading up to the elbow, "which tends to be a neglected area that usually is sufficiently close to experience accidental contact," adds Dr. Mashkevich. Remember to only stop rubbing in the hand sanitizer when your skin is dry. Wiping your hands before it's dry can make it not as effective in killing germs.