October 14, 2020

Your Comprehensive Guide to Hand Sanitizer

Find out the right way to use it — and which ones aren’t safe

woman using hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer became a hot commodity when the coronavirus hit. It abruptly disappeared from store shelves, and suddenly, everyone wanted to get their hands on some.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Manufacturers and stores have recovered from panic buying, and hand sanitizer is available again. Infectious disease specialist Carla McWilliams, MD, explains the benefits and drawbacks of hand sanitizer — both now and after the pandemic.

Does hand sanitizer kill the coronavirus?

The active ingredient in hand sanitizer is ethyl alcohol or isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. These ingredients kill bacteria and viruses — including the coronavirus — by dissolving their protein layer.

But the ingredient alone isn’t enough: It also needs to be the right strength. Check the label to see if it contains at least 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol.

“The alcohol content must be high enough to kill the coronavirus or any other germs,” says Dr. McWilliams. “That’s why I don’t recommend people try to make their own sanitizer. If the alcohol isn’t the right strength, the product won’t disinfect.”

Can I use sanitizer instead of soap and water?

When there’s no soap and water around, hand sanitizer is safe and effective. But whenever possible, you should opt for old-fashioned hand washing. Here’s why.

Hand sanitizers don’t kill everything

Have you ever noticed that hand sanitizer labels say they kill “99.9% of germs”? That’s because they can’t kill some nasty bugs like Clostridioides difficile (C. diff) and norovirus.


“If you’re around someone who is vomiting or has diarrhea, always use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds,” Dr. McWilliams says. “Washing your hands thoroughly removes all germs. Hand sanitizer can’t do that.”

You also need to wash your hands:

  • When they are visibly dirty (hand sanitizer doesn’t remove dirt, grease or grime).
  • When they feel dirty, even if you can’t see any dirt.
  • After using the restroom or changing a diaper.
  • Before eating or preparing food.
  • After touching animals and their toys, leashes or poop.
  • After touching something gross, like a trash can.
  • Before and after you visit someone in a hospital or nursing home.

Residue is a don’t

Maybe you used your hand sanitizer a few times during a grocery shopping trip. Do you notice a buildup or film on your hands? If so, head to a sink, stat.

“Hand sanitizers create a film on your hands,” Dr. McWilliams explains. “After you’ve used it several times, the film gets thick enough to trap germs inside, rather than kill them. When your hands feel coated or like there’s a residue, it’s time to wash off that film and start over.”

Why were some hand sanitizers recalled?

You may have seen the news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled many hand sanitizer brands. FDA testing found some sanitizers:

  • Were contaminated with toxic ingredients like methanol and 1-propanol.
  • Didn’t contain enough alcohol to kill germs, even if the label said it had the proper amount.
  • Had labels with false, misleading or unproven claims.

Your hand sanitizer may look legit, but the label won’t list toxic ingredients. If you’ve purchased sanitizer since the pandemic began, check the FDA’s hand sanitizer recall list before you use it.


Hand sanitizer shouldn’t look or smell yummy

The FDA also warns people that hand sanitizer packaging should look like, well, hand sanitizer.

Some companies have gotten creative with their packaging and started using containers that look like water bottles, juice bottles and even children’s food pouches. But drinking even a small amount of hand sanitizer can be toxic. Don’t use a product with these confusing packages.

The FDA has also received reports of companies adding food-like scents to sanitizer. You don’t have to use one that smells repulsive but skip the ones that remind you of dessert. Scented sanitizers could be dangerous for young children.

Keep using sanitizer, even after the pandemic

Even though it’s not perfect, hand sanitizer is still a reliable way to get rid of the coronavirus and other nasties when you can’t wash your hands.

“COVID-19 aside, there are all kinds of germs on surfaces — such as the flu, respiratory viruses and bacteria,” Dr. McWilliams says. “Hand hygiene should not go away when COVID does. I hope that the pandemic has taught people how important it is to keep your hands clean.”

Related Articles

crowd of people at music concert
February 5, 2024
What Constitutes a ‘Superspreader Event’?

Any large social gathering — from a family birthday party to an indoor music concert — has the potential to spread serious infection

Male with eyes closed sitting hunched over, pinching area between their eyes
January 29, 2024
Headache and Fatigue: 11 Possible Causes That Can Trigger Both

Many factors, like dehydration, a cold or even your medication, can result in these common symptoms

Female wrapped in blanket laying on sofa looking fatigued or unwell
January 23, 2024
How To Manage COVID Fatigue and Regain Your Energy

It’s important to connect with a healthcare provider, get quality sleep and balance your activities with your energy levels

Sick person on couch using tissue on nose with medication bottles on coffee table
January 19, 2024
How To Know if It’s COVID-19, a Cold or Allergies

Symptoms can overlap and be hard to distinguish, but there are some telltale differences

Close-up of hands in lab gloves sorting vials and covid-19 blood sample
January 17, 2024
Everything You Need To Know About COVID-19 Variants

Just like the flu, COVID-19 will continue to evolve every year

Adult female on couch, coughing into crook of arm, holding thermometer
January 15, 2024
Prepping for Flurona: When COVID-19 and the Flu Strike at the Same Time

It’s best to treat flu-like symptoms as if you have COVID-19

three bars of castille soap in front of three bottles of castille liquid soap
January 7, 2024
Is Castile Soap a Cure-All Cleanser?

This olive oil-based soap is generally mild and safe when diluted

positive COVID test with COVID virus molecules floating around it
December 20, 2023
How Long Does COVID-19 Last if You’re Vaccinated?

The duration varies, but symptoms can linger for a few days up to a couple weeks or more

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture