How to Properly Use Hand Sanitizer

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is simple to use, convenient, and often easy to find. While there is a correct way to use hand sanitizer to get the most benefit from it, what’s probably more important is knowing when using it may not be the best choice. Hand sanitizer can help kill microbes, but it isn’t effective on all germs and will do nothing for other substances that may be on your hands.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends cleaning your hands with soap and water whenever possible (and always when your hands are visibly soiled). Hand sanitizer can be used in addition to this or when washing isn’t an option.

Use Sanitizer When…

You can’t wash with soap and water

You want added protection after washing

Don’t Use Sanitizer…

In place of washing with soap and water

When your hands are visibly soiled

When you have chemicals on your hands

How It Works

When sanitizers first came out, there was little research showing what they did and didn’t do, but that has changed. More research needs to be done, but scientists are learning more all the time.

The active ingredient in hand sanitizers is isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), a similar form of alcohol (ethanol or n-propanol), or a combination of them. Alcohols have long been known to kill microbes by dissolving their protective outer layer of proteins and disrupting their metabolism

According to the CDC, research shows that hand sanitizer kills germs as effectively as washing your hands with soap and water—unless your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. They also don’t remove potentially harmful chemicals

Hand sanitizers also don’t kill some common germs soap and water do eliminate, such as:


Clostridium difficile


What to Look For

The CDC recommends sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content. Most products contain between 60% and 95%, but don’t assume that the higher the percentages are more effective. To work at peak efficiency, these products also need to contain some water.

Some products on the market claim to sanitize your hands but contain too little alcohol or no alcohol at all. These products will likely not offer you adequate protection.

How to Use It

When hand sanitizers do work, their effectiveness is based on several factors. In addition to which product you use, they include:

How much you use

Proper technique


Some situations in which use of a hand sanitizer may be appropriate include when you’re riding public transportation, have shaken hands or touched an animal, after you’ve touched a grocery cart, and so on.

To use hand sanitizer correctly:

Place the recommended amount in the palm of one hand. (Read the manufacturer’s directions.)

Rub your hands together, covering your entire hand, including between your fingers.

Stop rubbing in the sanitizer only once your skin is dry.

Take care to keep alcohol-based hand sanitizing gel out of the reach of young children, as it can be very dangerous if swallowed. The high alcohol content can be fatal to a young child.

When Not to Use It

Hand sanitizer should not be used instead of soap and water when:

Washing is convenient

Your hands are greasy or visibly dirty

You have chemicals on your hands

You may have been exposed to infectious agents that aren’t killed by hand sanitizer

You’re in a high-infection situation

To keep yourself and your family healthy, it’s especially important to clean your hands after you’ve used the restroom or prepared food. Vigorously washing your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds is best.


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