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debunking four common myths about hand sanitizer

By: Betsy Vereckey

Every day, we touch surfaces—door handles, shopping carts, faucets—that contain potentially harmful microbes. During cold and flu season, and viral outbreaks like the current coronavirus (COVID-19), it's even more essential to have clean hands.

With the threat of the coronavirus increasing every day, some estimates say that the demand for hand sanitizer has jumped 1,400 percent. Hand sanitizer, which works by dissolving microbes' protective outer layer, effectively wards off the germs that cause coronavirus—but only when used properly.

Though you may think that a quick application of hand sanitizer will do the job, there's actually a technique that increases its effectiveness. Also, not all hand sanitizers are created equal: The higher the alcohol content that the product has the better it will be at killing harmful germs.

Let's debunk four common myths about hand sanitizer and ensure you do your best to stay healthy during the current pandemic.


Myth 1: Hand sanitizer works just as well as soap and water.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are convenient because they can reduce the number of germs on your hands when you're on the go without the need to use soap and water. However, unlike soap and water, hand sanitizer does not reduce all the germs on your hands. For example, it does not kill the norovirus (clostridium difficile) or cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes a diarrheal disease called cryptosporidiosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In addition, some studies show that germs are becoming resistant to the alcohol in hand sanitizer.

Hand sanitizer is better than nothing, but using soap and water is more effective because it removes all the germs on your hands, the CDC says. When using soap and water, spend 20 seconds lathering up your hands, making sure to get the backs of your hands and under your fingernails.


Myth 2: Hand sanitizer doesn't need to be rubbed all over your hands.

Hand sanitizer is only effective if it's used copiously all over your hands and rubbed in until the solution is absolutely dry. The label of the product should tell you how much you need to apply, but a good general tip is to aim for a quarter-sized drop.


Myth 3: Hand sanitizers with under 60 percent alcohol are still effective.

Hand sanitizer is made with alcohol, a germ-killing solution. The CDC says that sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60 to 95 percent are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Always look at the back of your hand sanitizer before purchasing it—products that have less than 60 percent alcohol may not work as well and only reduce the growth of germs, rather than kill them, the CDC says. Also, be sure to check the expiration date; hand sanitizer is usually good for several years, but its effectiveness may be minimized if expired.

Myth 4: Hand sanitizer works even if your hands are dirty.

The CDC warns that hand sanitizer may not be as effective when your hands are very dirty or greasy. Hand sanitizer can do its job the best when your hands aren't heavily soiled. If you've been handling greasy food or doing yard work, hand sanitizer won't be able to penetrate as well to kill the germs. In these cases, hand-washing is always better.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is simple to use and, when applied correctly, incredibly effective. By washing your hands thoroughly and using hand sanitizer with an alcohol concentration of at least 60 percent, you can greatly help minimize your risk of catching coronavirus and spreading it to others.

Betsy Vereckey is a writer and editor who has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, USA Today, The Washington Post, Newsweek and New York Magazine. View Betsy's portfolio.