As COVID-19 began its spread across the United States, hand sanitizer was quickly snatched from store shelves. For some, hand sanitizer is the key to avoiding any infectious disease, while others believe it’s either unnecessary or ineffective. So which is it?
The answer is more nuanced than that. “Hand sanitizer does work, but, of course, our first line is to use soap and water,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital and Chief Medical Officer at HealthiNation. “If you can’t have access to that, hand sanitizers can be a great second option.”
Washing your hands with soap and water is more effective at reducing the amount of *all* types of germs and chemicals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s also better at removing visible dirt, grease, and grime. By comparison, hand sanitizer can reduce the amount of some, but not all, germs and chemicals. That's important during an outbreak, given that pathogens like the novel coronavirus can live on skin and other surfaces and be spread to others.
The type of hand sanitizer you choose is also important. The CDC recommends a sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. A hand sanitizer with a lower alcohol content may not be as effective at reducing germs on the hands. (Many, if not most, commercial hand sanitizers meet this mark—even Bath & Body Works has a hand sanitizer formula with 68 percent alcohol.)
You also want to make sure you’re using hand sanitizer correctly, which requires covering all of your hands and not just rubbing the palms together. “A lot of the viral particles also live in your fingertips,” says Dr. Parikh. Don’t forget the thumbs and between the fingers as well.