Antibacterial Wipes or Hand Sanitizer: Which Is More Effective When Hand Washing Isn't an Option?

Three doctors break down the differences between these popular on-the-go options.

Mother squeezing hand sanitizer onto little daughter's hand
Photo: d3sign / Getty Images

Make no mistake about it: Good hand hygiene is crucial to curtailing the spread of bacteria and viruses, such as coronavirus. "This can include hand washing with soap and water, antiseptic hand washes, antiseptic hand rubs such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS), foams, and gels [including wipes], or surgical hand antisepsis in healthcare settings," explains Dr. Evelyn Darius, a physician with virtual health platform PlushCare. And whether it's liquid hand sanitizer in a bottle or antibacterial wipes, Dr. Lisa R. Bardack, chair of the department of internal medicine and internist at CareMount Medical, says how you use them can make a big difference. "When using hand sanitizing gels or wipes, it is very important to completely cover your hands with the sanitizer and continue to wipe your hands with the product thoroughly until the product is dried on your hands," she says. "Never wipe sanitizer off of your hands. Always wait for it to dry completely."

Ultimately, traditional hand washing is what most health experts recommend when it comes to protecting your health, but that's not always an option. Curious which type of sanitizer is more effective for on-to-go use, or when soap and a sink aren't available to you? We asked Dr. Bardack, Dr. Darius, and Dr. Linda Anegawa, a physician with PlushCare, to break down the differences between hand wipes and sanitizers, and here's what they had to share.

What makes hand sanitizer effective?

Above all else, our experts say the most important aspect of any hand sanitizer, including liquids, foams, and gels, is the active ingredients. "The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that hand sanitizers contain 60 percent to 95 percent ethanol or isopropanol, which gives them the best germ-fighting capacity," Dr. Anegawa says. And while benzalkonium chloride is also considered an FDA-approved sanitizing ingredient, Dr. Darius warns that there is evidence suggesting that it's less effective against certain bacteria and viruses than either of the alcohols.

When is the best time to use hand sanitizer?

Bardack says the best time to use hand sanitizer is when you can't wash your hands the old-fashioned way. "Hand sanitizer gel is useful if you do not have access to a sink and soap," she explains. "They're great when you want something easy to carry that you can use on your clean hands if you touch objects or surfaces which may be contaminated." However, she says it's crucial that you don't store them in your car—especially when it's hot outside. "Alcohol can evaporate in the heat, making the product ineffective," she warns.

What makes hand wipes effective?

Much like liquid, gel, and foam sanitizers, Bardack says that it's imperative you use hand wipes with alcohol listed as the active ingredient. "Alcohol-based hand wipes work by destabilizing the cells of viruses and bacteria, thereby destroying them and making them inactive," she explains. "The percentage of alcohol must be greater than 60 percent and should be in the form of ethanol or propanol (isopropyl alcohol) for it to be effective."

When is the best time to use hand wipes?

According to Bardack, hand sanitizing wipes are often more convenient to carry, and less messy, than their liquid counterparts. "Gels run the risk of spilling out of their containers and leaking in bags or onto clothing," she explains. And thanks to their slightly abrasive construction, she says that wipes can be used to remove visible dirt from hands. "This makes them more effective than gels for mildly soiled hands," she adds.

Which one is more effective on-the-go?

When it comes to killing bacteria and viruses on the fly, Bardack says hand sanitizers and wipes are both equally effective at killing germs. "However, the best way to clean your hands is with soap and water," she says. "Although sanitizing wipes and gels do kill bacteria and viruses, they are only effective when used on clean hands. If hands are covered with either dirt or oil, the active ingredient of alcohol contained in these products will not be able to penetrate through to the skin, and therefore, will not be able to effectively destroy germs."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles