Advice from Your Pharmacist: Proper Use of Hand Sanitizers

Published: February 01, 2022
By Georgia G. Luchen, PharmD
Alan Yee
By Alan Yee, 2022 PharmD Candidate

Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of germs and disease. However, soap and water are not always easily accessible, especially if you are running errands, in public spaces, or at work. A good substitute is to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands. Your pharmacist is an excellent resource for answering questions about hand sanitizers and preventing the spread of germs.

What is hand sanitizer?

Hand sanitizers are liquids, foams, or gels that can kill most germs that can cause disease. Effective hand sanitizers contain alcohol as the main ingredient (look for ethanol or isopropyl alcohol on the bottle). Hand sanitizers need at least 60% alcohol to work well.

Why should you use hand sanitizers?

Surfaces around you are covered with germs. By touching surfaces, and then your nose or mouth or other people, you spread germs that can cause disease. Keeping your hands clean is important to keep everyone safe. If water and soap are not available, you should use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

When should you use hand sanitizers?

It is important to clean your hands after touching dirty surfaces, and before touching food or medication. For example, clean your hands after using the toilet, blowing your nose, touching garbage, or handling animals. It is also important to clean your hands when caring for loved ones who are sick, injured, or when visiting the hospital. For hands that are visibly dirty, always try to use soap and water.

How do you use hand sanitizers?

  • Place hand sanitizer in the palm of your hand (around a teaspoon-- enough to cover all surfaces)
  • Rub your hands together to cover all surfaces of your hand (front and back)
  • Continue to rub your hands for at least 15-30 seconds
  • Allow hands to dry by rubbing them; do not wipe the hand sanitizer off

Are hand sanitizers safe?

Most alcohol-based hand sanitizers are safe when used on the skin of your hands but are not safe if taken by mouth or placed in the eyes. Make sure to keep it away from your eyes and out of reach of children.

  • If the hand sanitizer gets into your eye, rinse them gently under running water for 15-20 minutes. If you have redness and irritation after rinsing, call your doctor or pharmacist.
  • If you accidentally drink hand sanitizer, immediately call poison control (1-800-222-1222). Also call your doctor or pharmacist.

Some hand sanitizers may have harmful additives, such as methanol, 1-propanol, benzene, acetaldehyde, or acetal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tests hand sanitizers sold to the public and has a list of products you should not use if they contain these additives. To check if your sanitizer is safe, review the product label for these additives and search for it on the FDA’s complete list here. You can also talk to your pharmacist about any questions you may have about hand sanitizers.

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