How To Safely Use Hand Sanitizer | Muse Health

Health     Hand Sanitizer   Stay Safe   

Public health advice is currently for people to wash their hands as often as possible to control coronavirus spread.

Researchers have found that handwashing is a simple intervention for eliminating a broad spectrum of microbes, including the virus that causes COVID-19.

Unfortunately, places to wash with soap and water can be few and far between, especially outside of your home. For that reason, hand sanitizer has become the go-to method for personal hand hygiene. It’s portable, safe, and highly effective.

These products, however, are new to many people. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, relatively few individuals outside of medical settings used them. Thus, there is a lack of general knowledge on how to use them safely and effectively.

image of two hands using hand sanitizer

Only Use Products That Contain 60 Percent Alcohol Or More

Alcohol is the active ingredient in hand sanitizers. You’ll generally see two types listed on the back of products you buy: ethanol (sometimes called ethyl alcohol) and isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol).

Chemically-speaking, ethanol is the same as drinking alcohol. Isopropanol is slightly different and often referred to as “rubbing alcohol” because medics used it historically to sanitize the skin. Today, you can find it in antiseptics, surface disinfectants, and even household cleaning products, such as shoe deodorizing sprays.

Alcohol can kill coronavirus particles (and many other microbes) because of how it interacts with their protective casing. Most viruses use a fatty membrane to protect their internal cellular machinery, like RNA, from the outside world. Alcohol has a chemical composition that allows it to dissolve this layer over time, denaturing the membrane, causing all the virus’s internal components to spill out. Once that happens, the virus can no longer multiply and ceases to be a disease threat.

Viruses, however, have some resistance to alcohol. If the concentration is below 60 percent, then the lipid bilayer that forms the membrane won’t dissolve, and the viral particle will remain stubbornly intact.

That’s why it is essential to find sanitizers that are at least 60 percent alcohol, and sometimes more. For instance, the CDC recommends that people use alcohol concentrations of between 60 and 90 percent for disinfection purposes. In terms of COVID-19, preliminary studies from the CDC demonstrate that alcohol concentrations of 80 percent kill SARS-CoV-2.

image of a kid playing with her dog in the living room

Keep Out Of Reach Of Children And Pets

Hand sanitizers are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thus, you should approach them in the same way as any other medication you buy from the pharmacy.

Always keep sanitizers out of reach of children. Ingesting alcohol in high concentrations is dangerous.

Hand sanitizers are attractive to young children because of the pretty shape of some manufacturers’ bottles and the pleasant odors they emit. Toddlers who explore the world through their mouths will automatically attempt to eat sanitizers in their vicinity. Drinking just a small amount can lead to alcohol poisoning - something that the media has reported on consistently since the advent of the crisis.

Always supervise the use of sanitizer. Keep hold of the bottle and squirt a teaspoon in your child’s hand. Then, show them how to spread it around. If your child is very young and cannot understand your instructions, rub the product in yourself.

Once you apply sanitizer, you don’t have to worry about your child licking their hands afterward. The alcohol rapidly evaporates and absorbs, rendering the product safe.

Pets are also at risk of consuming hand sanitizer and face similar threats, namely alcohol poisoning. Always keep hand sanitizer out of sight, preferably in a locked cupboard or container.

image of a hand with a lighter and a flame

Keep Away From Flames

Alcohol is an excellent disinfectant, but it is also highly flammable. Pour brandy over a Christmas pudding and strike a match, and you can see this effect for yourself.

Hand sanitizers are even higher in alcohol than spirits, so they are more flammable. Keep them away from open flames, and don’t use them in the kitchen while cooking. Ensure that your hands are completely dry before using a lighter or going near sparks, static electricity, or fire.

image of two hands rubbing each other

Use Hand Sanitizer Correctly

Hand sanitizer is only effective at killing the coronavirus if you use it correctly. Like regular hand washing with soap and water, failing to follow the correct procedure will increase the risk of viral transmission.

The first step is to ensure that you remove all visible organic matter from your hands. For example, if your hands are covered in mud, scrub this off first.

Next step, apply a dime-sized amount of sanitizer to the palm of one of your hands. It should look like a small puddle - just enough to thoroughly coat the skin.

Then rub your hands together vigorously. The friction this action creates is crucial because it forces microscopic quantities of sanitizing products into the crevices in your skin - the places viral particles are most likely to lurk.

Finally, continue rubbing your hands until the sanitizer dries. Once it does, the virus particles are deactivated, and you are free to use your hands with confidence.

When sanitizing your hands, make sure that you rub it over both the front and back, as well as the fingers, paying attention to the nail area.

Don’t rinse off the sanitizer with plain water afterward, even if it feels sticky. Usually, any stickiness will disappear within 30 minutes, but if it doesn’t, or you don’t like the feeling, remove it by washing your hands in soapy water. Alternatively, choose a hand sanitizer with a non-stick formula.

If your hands are filthy, hand sanitizer won’t be effective. Alcohol cannot penetrate the core of dirt particles and kill viruses lurking inside.

Image of a man wearing glasses and a white coat with a cellphone and two flasks in a lab

Never Make Your Own Sanitizer

During a public health emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic, hand sanitizer can be hard to find. Stores sell out quickly when people want to protect themselves, and it takes time to replenish stocks, even if the industrial capacity to make hand sanitizer is enormous.

Situations like these tempt many people to create their own sanitizer. After all, how hard can it be? It’s just alcohol and moisturizing agents, right?

In reality, sanitizer production is not as simple as that - and the FDA outright advises against people trying to do it at home.

Lack of effectiveness is the first issue. According to the FDA, merely adding alcohol to non-alcohol hand sanitizers is unlikely to produce a useful product. What’s more, consumers may find it hard to get the alcohol concentration required to kill coronavirus effectively. Data suggest that it is susceptible to alcohol concentrations in a specific range.

Skin irritation is the second issue that can lead to problems. If you make your own wipes or liquid, you may pick the wrong ingredients and mix them in incorrect ratios. Many standard household disinfectant products contain harsh chemicals for everyday surfaces, like your kitchen table, not your skin. Using them could lead to irritation and chapping, increasing the risk of transmission and spread of the virus.

image of a hand sanitizer and some face masks

Store Hand Sanitizer Safely

Because hand sanitizer is both a fire and an intoxication risk, storing it correctly is essential.

The World Health Organization (WHO) offers practical advice for storing, disposing, and cleaning up hand sanitizer.

For instance, it advises that you take extra care when carrying hand sanitizer to prevent it from getting on your clothes, bags, or vehicle as this could be a fire hazard. It also suggests that you keep hand sanitizer in a cool, dry place, well away from sources of ignition.

The risk of fire is exceptionally low. In a 2007 study covering more than 25,000 hospital years of use, investigators only found reports of seven fires, none of which were severe. However, it would help if you still were vigilant.

If you spill hand sanitizer, the WHO recommends that you deal with it immediately and remove all sources of ignition. You should then cover the fluid with an inert material, such as dry sand, and dispose of it in your chemical waste. If you smell vapors, you should try to disperse them as quickly as possible. You can do this by opening a window or wrapping contaminated items tightly in a plastic bag until you can take them to a safe location.

If you set up a dispenser in your home or business, consider who will be able to access it. Ideally, you should place it on a platform out of the reach of both pets and toddlers but readily available for people to use conveniently—the WHO recommends against placing dispensers in carpeted areas that make spillages more challenging to clean up.

Wrapping Up

According to leading health bodies, including the WHO, the benefits of alcohol-based hand sanitizers far outweigh the risks. They are a critical component in the fight against infection and disease transmission, thanks to their effectiveness and absence of microbial resistance reports. Just like handwashing, they are a vital component in the battle against COVID-19 - and will remain so in any future outbreak.