3 Ingredients Every Hand Sanitizer Should Include | Muse Health

Health     Hand Sanitizer   COVID-19   

With the events of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, health has become a major priority for everyone. As many people continue practicing social distancing, one thing that is hard to avoid is the necessity to invest in your own health. One tool that is a must-have on anyone’s list, is a proper and effective hand sanitizer. Portable and filled with ingredients that fight and kill germs, hand sanitizers continue growing in popularity and influence. With so many brands offering hand sanitizers, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish which formulations will work best.

Although every formulation is a little different, there are common ingredients to look out for. Taking time to look over labels for certain ingredients will help keep you safe in the long run.

There are 3 ingredients every hand sanitizer should include.

dispensing hand sanitizer onto hand

What is the definition of a sanitizer?

Before diving into the 3 ingredients, it is important to understand what a hand sanitizer is. Often associated with other cleaning products, hand sanitizers are a standalone product that works specifically to clean hands. Defined as a liquid or gel used to clean hands and kill infection-causing microorganisms, hand sanitizers continue being one of the leading ways to fight off illness. Although hand washing with antibacterial soap is still considered the best method, according to the World Health Organization, the antimicrobial merits of hand sanitizer cannot be ignored.

To learn more about hand sanitizers, A Complete History of Hand Sanitizer provides insights into the development and implementation of these products.

What is the active ingredient in all FDA approved hand sanitizers?

For a hand sanitizer to be effective in killing germs, it needs to have an active ingredient. An active ingredient is the biologically active component of a formulation that is responsible for its effectiveness. For example, in some pain relievers, the active ingredient is Ibuprofen.

In hand sanitizers, the ingredient that gives formulations power is alcohol. If you go to any drug store or search on websites like Amazon, as you look through different hand sanitizer brands, most will list their active ingredient as ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. Both variations of alcohol are effective but do have differences.

Isopropyl alcohol otherwise known as isopropanol or rubbing alcohol is characterized by its quick evaporation, making it perfect for both hands and electronic upkeep. Ethyl alcohol also known as ethanol or grain alcohol is slightly more drying on the skin and can also be found in any distilled alcoholic beverages.

To learn more about the effectiveness of alcohol in killing germs, How Effective is Alcohol at Killing Germs and Bacteria, breaks down how alcohol kills bacteria and the formulations that work best.

Sanitizers vs disinfectant

Two words that are often used interchangeably are sanitizer and disinfectant. Both used to clean surfaces, there are major differences between these products.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the terms sanitize and disinfect have different definitions. When a person sanitizes, it lowers the number of germs on surfaces by either killing or removing them. The lowered number of germs present on a surface due to sanitization is considered “safe” and in accordance with public safety requirements. When a person disinfects, it results in the killing of germs on surfaces and objects.

While it may seem that a disinfectant would be the clear winner, sanitizers are formulated to be used on skin. Disinfectants normally contain harsh chemicals that should not come into prolonged contact with skin.

Sanitizers should be used on skin while disinfectants should be used on high traffic items like doorknobs, inside your car, and when cleaning a cellphone.

drop of hand sanitizer on blue background

What are the hand sanitizer ingredients that make it effective?

As alluded to earlier, hand sanitizers are characterized by their ability to keep hands germ free. In order to be most effective, hand sanitizer formulations should contain certain ingredients without fail. These ingredients not only work to keep hands clean but also prevent damage to the skin.

Denatured Ethyl Alcohol

The most important ingredient that every hand sanitizer should have is denatured ethyl alcohol. Although there are hand sanitizer brands on the market that forgo the inclusion of alcohol, the CDC still recommends using hand sanitizers that have at least 60 percent alcohol content. The reason that 60% is considered the magic number is because that amount of alcohol is needed to begin the process of breaking down a cell’s walls.

Think of cells as a building. When construction workers begin the building process, they need to lay down a strong foundation from which to build upon. A cell’s wall is its foundation. Once a cell’s wall is permeated and punctured, it becomes vulnerable. Through this process of breaking down a cell’s wall, alcohol compromises the integrity of a cell’s structure.

Without alcohol at a concentration of 60% or more, a hand sanitizer formulation is not strong enough to break through. When looking at the labels of a hand sanitizer, make sure to pay special attention to the percentage of alcohol used. Also, make sure to store hand sanitizers away from areas easily accessible to young children to avoid accidental ingestion.

Make sure to not confuse ethyl alcohol with methanol.


Also known as glycerol, glycerin is an incredibly important ingredient. With the high percentage of alcohol used in hand sanitizers, there needs to be some ingredient that offsets its effects. Alcohol is great for killing germs but leaves hands dry and flaky. Skin requires a certain degree of moisture to maintain its appearance and also function normally. When the skin becomes too dry, it is more susceptible to tearing. These tears can result in the formation of infections.

Glycerin is the perfect foil to the effects of alcohol due to its natural ability to lock in moisture. When a product is able to keep a surface moisturized for longer periods of time, it creates a protective barrier that prevents environmental wear and tear. Other ingredients like aloe vera gel and essential oils also trap moisture but not with the same efficiency as glycerin.

In addition to its moisturizing effects, glycerin also contributes to the consistency of sanitizers as it comes out bottle dispensers. Without it, hand sanitizers would run over hands without sticking to one area. Although you would have alcohol, it would drip everywhere, making it impossible to hand rub.


Although obvious, a good hand sanitizer should include water somewhere on its ingredient list. According to the FDA, the water used in formulations should be distilled. Distilled water is water that has been boiled in vaper and then condensed back into liquid form. This distillation process removes many impurities, making it safer to use in products.  

In hand sanitizers, water plays an important role. Water helps dissolve proteins located inside of pathogens. Through this process, alcohol is able to effectively kill germs.

always do your research

When it comes to hand sanitizers, there are so many brands out there that you can get stuck trying to figure out which is best. As a rule of thumb, make it a practice to check the labels of all sanitizers you’re considering. Doing this will help you find hand sanitizer products that place health care as a priority. And although it may be tempting to create a diy hand sanitizer due to a myriad of hand sanitizer recipes online, buying a professionally manufactured product is the way to go. Keep the three aforementioned ingredients in mind and you’ll be sure to find a hand sanitizer that works for you and your family.