Is it Safe to Use Hand Sanitizer on Wounds?

No one likes to get a cut while spending the day outside over the summer, but a minor wound can quickly become a major problem if measures aren’t taken to discourage infection.

Many wounds, both large and small, seem to occur when you’re least expecting them. Unless you come prepared by carrying around a first aid kit or keeping medical supplies in your car (which isn’t a bad idea), a source of clean water might not be nearby for quick application. Cuts and other open wounds should always be disinfected before being wrapped in a bandage—especially if you’ve been outside.

Although water and soap might not be close by, however, a lot of people tend to carry hand sanitizer with them. It can be tempting to use this handy solution (no pun intended) as a means to clean the affected areas on your body, but is it really safe?

Hand Sanitizer Vs. Clean Water

The answer to this dilemma is straightforward, but also situation dependent.

The overall consensus is no, hand sanitizer is not ideal to use on open wounds. A hand sanitizing agent is intended to be used on the skin only, as it consists of an ethyl alcohol solution that is meant to kill germs. Applying hand sanitizer to large cuts or lacerations is likely to dehydrate the tissues beneath the skin and cause an extremely painful burning sensation in the process.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that hand sanitizer is unsafe for wound treatment. Though certainly not the best sterilizing method, the alcohol contents found in hand sanitizer (or hand sanitizing wipes) will still disinfect the exposed tissues enough to keep the wound clean—just not as efficiently as you’d want.

One of the main sources of wound infection comes from stray particles like dirt and dust getting stuck in the lesion, introducing harmful bacteria and slowing the rate of healing. Alcohol (especially gel-based hand sanitizers) will not remove these trapped intruders, meaning the chance of infection might still be there.

If you find yourself in a pinch and have no alternatives on hand, hand sanitizer is better than nothing, as eliminating any bacteria that might be lingering on the wound’s surface is still preferred over not cleaning the injury at all. The stinging pain, however, will be unavoidable.

In an ideal situation, it is best to sterilize an open wound with clean drinking water and plain soap. This combination will not only remove harmful bacteria on the site, but it will also flush the wound free of contaminants. While drying the wound, always dab it gently with a tissue or clean towel—never use cotton, which is likely to leave behind stringy material. After the exposed area is cleaned and dried, carefully apply a bandage. Small cuts can be secured with band-aids, but non-adhesive bandages are better for larger abrasions.

Of course, hand sanitizer can still play a vital role in proper wound treatment by sterilizing your hands before you begin addressing the issue. Working with open injuries while your hands are dirty could easily give germs the free ride they need.

Which Types of Wounds Should Be Cleaned?

While it is generally good practice to treat every open wound with soap and water, most small abrasions that aren’t deep enough to bleed profusely can simply be bandaged until you reach a sink for proper care. Tiny cuts usually aren’t exposed enough for dirt and other contaminating particles to get inside and cause issues, especially if you take quick action. It will always be a good idea to clean these injuries anyway, however.

If, on the other hand, your wound is bleeding rapidly, takes up considerable surface area, or reaches deeply beneath your skin, you should always seek to clean it as fast as possible. When in doubt, it’s better to err on the side of cleaning no matter what.

In cases where your injury won’t stop bleeding, has large materials embedded in it, is swelling, or is too painful to take care of yourself, immediate medical attention is needed. Visit the nearest urgent care facility or dial 911. Animal bites should always be inspected by a medical professional, as saliva can carry dangerous bacteria and even diseases into the wound.

Why Should Wounds Be Cleaned in the First Place?

Harmful germs are the primary source of wound infections. If allowed to grow within a wound, bacteria can colonize specific areas of the exposed tissues and provoke an aggravated response from your immune system, leading to symptoms such as swelling and increased pain. In the event serious wound infection is left unchecked, the damaged site might bear a yellow or green color and smell bad. Your immune system will then go haywire as it desperately tries to deal with the infection, bringing about chills, aches, a fever, and vomiting—all very unpleasant experiences!

Small wound infections are likely to go away on their own with time, while medical attention is vital for larger cases. The best way to prevent infections altogether is to clean all open wounds, disallowing dangerous organisms from growing inside the exposed site. With the injured area clear of invaders, your body will be able to heal much faster and more efficiently.

The Final Verdict

To sum everything up, hand sanitizer is often safe to use on small cuts and minor abrasions, although there will be some stinging. In an emergency situation (that is, with no available alternatives), hand sanitizer can be used to clean open wounds despite not working particularly well compared to clean water and soap. The alcohol content found in hand sanitizer can also cause immense pain within large lacerations. Only use it if there is truly no other option!

A much more practical use of hand sanitizer is to clean your hands before you start treating an open wound. With sanitized hands, you won’t need to worry about accidentally introducing contaminants to the exposed site while you sterilize and bandage.

Muse Health offers high quality fragrance-free hand sanitizer that not only kills off 99% of germs, but also hydrates your skin to keep it from drying and cracking after multiple uses. This makes it one of the best pack-and-forget emergency sanitizers out there for outdoor activities where wounds are likely to crop up. Visit our store page to stock up before your next adventurous outing!

It always pays to be prepared. Stay safe!