Does Hand Sanitizer Help Prevent Colds and Flu? | Muse Health

Cold     Flu     Hand Sanitizer     Prevention

Hand sanitizer is a handy product to keep in your bag or in your car, and we've all been using a lot of it in the past few months. It's a convenient, on-the-go alternative to washing your hands, especially during the time of COVID-19 when everyone is being especially cautious. With winter approaching, people will also be thinking about how to prevent colds and the flu. No one wants to get ill, and we know that keeping our hands clean can help to prevent the spread of germs. But is hand sanitizer an effective solution to help prevent colds and flu?

hands using hand sanitizer with germ molecules in the background

How Hand Sanitizer Works Against Germs?

The active ingredient in sanitizer is alcohol - either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol kills bacteria and viruses by breaking down the protective outer proteins of organisms and dissolving their membranes. The more alcohol that the hand sanitizer has, the more effective it will be. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it.

Two hands holding soap bar and hand sanitizer

How Does Hand Sanitizer Compare to Washing Your Hands?

While hand sanitizer can kill bacteria and viruses, it's not as effective as washing your hands with soap and water. According to the CDC, washing your hands is better for removing certain types of bacteria and viruses from your hands. However, in terms of effectiveness, both using hand sanitizer and handwashing can be more or less effective depending on what you do. To effectively wash your hands, you need to use soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. It's important to work up a lather and to cover all over your hands, fingers and wrists for an effective wash. Many people don't quite get it right when they're washing their hands, although we have all had recent reminders of the proper way to wash our hands.

Hand sanitizer also needs to be used effectively to get it to work well. However, when it comes to killing bacteria and viruses, poor hand sanitizer use might be better than poor hand washing. Ideally, you should rub your hands together for 15 to 20 seconds when using hand sanitizer. Some studies have shown that hand sanitizer use can reduce gastrointestinal illnesses.

One study in Spain showed that using hand sanitizer could lead to fewer respiratory infections. The study was carried out in a daycare with one group of children using hand sanitizer when arriving in the morning, before and after lunch, after playing outside, before and after lunch, after coughing, sneezing or blowing their noses, after diaper changes, and before going home, while another group used soap and water to wash their hands instead. Both groups washed their hands after going to the toilet or if their hands were dirty. The group using hand sanitizer had fewer respiratory infections, and fewer missed days of school compared to the handwashing group and the control group. However, one thing to keep in mind is these results came from frequent use of hand sanitizer, between six and eight times per day. Keeping up this level of use in the real world, especially with children, could be difficult.

It also depends on what types of germs you're trying to tackle. Hand sanitizer can be good for helping with cold and flu germs, but there are some germs that alcohol isn't so good at killing. These include norovirus and E. coli.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while alcohol-based hand sanitizer kills germs, it doesn't clean your hands. In other words, it won't get dirt off your hands. If you sneeze on your hand, hand sanitizer won't be as effective to tackle mucus as washing your hands with soap and water would be. A study in Japan showed that when mucus was applied to fingertips, ethanol-based products didn't kill the virus.

woman rubbing hands close up

Effective Hand Sanitizer Use

You can help to make sure that hand sanitizer is as effective as possible by using it in the right way. Firstly, make sure that you buy hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. Secondly, ensure you rub the sanitizer all over the surface of your hands to ensure full coverage. Spend at least 15 to 20 seconds getting the sanitizer over your hands and fingers. It's also important to make sure that you let it dry when you use it - don't wipe your hands before the sanitizer has dried. It should dry quickly, so you won't have to wait too long.

When to use hand sanitizer

So, if hand sanitizer can be effective but isn't always the most effective option, when should you use hand sanitizer and when should you wash your hands with soap and water?

Hand sanitizer is a convenient option for helping to kill cold and flu bugs when you don't have easy access to soap and water. It's handy to carry around, and it has long been used in places like hospital corridors or other places where it's necessary for people to quickly and frequently clean their hands. You can make use of hand sanitizer when you leave your home and when you enter different buildings. You can't always get to a bathroom or another hand washing station, and hand sanitizer is also effective for dealing with cold and flu germs.

Hand sanitizer is useful for helping to prevent colds and flu, but it should be used together with washing your hands with soap and water. Hand sanitizer is particularly useful if you're on the move or out and about, or anywhere where access to water isn't so easy. By carrying hand sanitizer with you or using it when it's provided in public places, you can help to keep germs at bay and stay healthy during the winter, as well as at other times of the year.

Remember to check that the hand sanitizer you buy is at least 60% alcohol to ensure it's as effective as possible. The higher the alcohol content, the better it is at beating germs.