Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a clear, colorless alcohol that is an ingredient in many hand sanitizers. It is effective at killing a range of bacteria and viruses.

In this article, we look at why hand sanitizers contain ethanol, and how effective it is as an ingredient.

We also look at how to choose an effective hand sanitizer and tips for how best to use it.

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Alcohol-based hand sanitizer contains a certain percentage of the active ingredient ethyl alcohol (also known as ethanol) or isopropyl alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that hand sanitizers should contain at least 60% ethanol.

Ethanol is a colorless, clear liquid with a strong taste.

Ethanol can be an ingredient in cleaning products and solvents. People can also use it as an antiseptic, which people may know as rubbing alcohol.

At certain concentrations, ethanol can kill a variety of different types of bacteria and viruses. This makes it an effective component in many hand sanitizers.

Ethanol is a flammable liquid and high concentrations can cause alcohol poisoning if people swallow it. Continued use of topical ethanol products may cause skin irritation or dry skin.

The CDC note that ethanol has antimicrobial properties. Ethanol works to break down the structure of the proteins of bacteria.

Research has shown ethanol to have antimicrobial effects against bacteria such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Ethanol is also effective against salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever.

Concentrations of 60–80% ethanol are effective against many viruses, including herpes, influenza, and rhinovirus.

The antimicrobial properties of ethanol increase with a mix of ethanol and water, making hand sanitizers more effective than pure ethanol in killing bacteria.

Hand sanitizers containing isopropyl alcohol are also effective, and work in a similar way to ethanol to kill bacteria and viruses. Isopropyl alcohol may appear in products as isopropanol or 2-propanol.

The CDC note that isopropyl alcohol is slightly more effective at killing E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria than ethanol.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that people choose a hand sanitizer containing ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.

Against COVID-19

Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.

COVID-19 occurs as a result of infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

The FDA have not approved any kind of hand sanitizer to prevent or treat COVID-19.

The CDC note that the best way to help prevent spreading viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, is to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Learn more about how to wash hands correctly here.

However, if a person is not able to wash their hands, they can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol.

Versus non-ethanol hand sanitizers

The CDC does not advise people to use hand sanitizer that does not contain at least 60% alcohol. This is because non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers may not work as well.

Additionally, some hand sanitizers may contain benzalkonium chloride. The CDC state that evidence suggests that it is less reliable against bacteria and viruses.

According to the CDC, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol to be effective.

This is because research has shown that alcohol concentrations below 60% are not as effective as killing germs, and may just decrease germ growth rather than destroying them.

Hand sanitizers with less than 60% alcohol may also not kill as many different types of viruses and bacteria compared to higher concentrations.

Ethanol is most effective in concentrations between 60–95%.

People can look for the following when choosing an effective hand sanitizer:

  • an alcohol percentage of 60% or higher
  • ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, listed in the ingredients
  • hand sanitizers that contain isopropanol or 2-propanol in the ingredients

If a hand sanitizer simply lists “alcohol” in the ingredients list, it is referring to ethanol.

FDA NOTICE

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced recalls of several hand sanitizers due to the potential presence of methanol.

Methanol is a toxic alcohol that can have adverse effects, such as nausea, vomiting, or headache, when a significant amount is used on the skin. More serious effects, such as blindness, seizures, or damage to the nervous system, can occur if methanol is ingested. Drinking hand sanitizer containing methanol, either accidentally or purposely, can be fatal. See here for more information on how to spot safe hand sanitizers.

If you purchased any hand sanitizer containing methanol, you should stop using it immediately. Return it to the store where you purchased it, if possible. If you experienced any adverse effects from using it, you should call your healthcare provider. If your symptoms are life threatening, call emergency medical services immediately.

A person should avoid:

  • using any hand sanitizer that does not contain 60% ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol
  • using any hand sanitizer on the FDA’s list of hand sanitizers people should not use
  • using any hand sanitizer with methanol or 1-propanol listed in the ingredients
  • buying any hand sanitizer that comes in packaging similar to any food or drink item, as hand sanitizer is poisonous to ingest

Additionally, people should avoid making hand sanitizer at home.

Learn more about making hand sanitizer at home here.

To use ethanol hand sanitizer effectively, people should use enough hand sanitizer to cover the whole of both hands, and rub it thoroughly over the fingers, palms, and backs of the hands.

A person should continue rubbing it into the hands until the sanitizer dries, avoiding contact with the eyes and mouth.

If a young child is using hand sanitizer, an adult should supervise them while they apply it.

In addition, people should:

  • Avoid wiping hand sanitizer from the hands before it dries completely, as removing the hand sanitizer before it dries means it may not work as effectively in killing germs.
  • Avoid using hand sanitizer for anything other than the hands, such as cleaning surfaces, as hand sanitizer is not suitable for any other use.
  • Store hand sanitizer below temperatures of 105°F, and avoid keeping it in places hotter than this, such as in a car during warm weather.
  • Always avoid putting hand sanitizer in the mouth or swallowing it, as ethanol hand sanitizer can cause alcohol poisoning.

Ethanol hand sanitizer contains ethanol, or ethyl alcohol. Ethanol is effective at killing many different germs, and is a common ingredient in cleaning products and antiseptic agents.

The CDC note that people should choose a hand sanitizer containing 60% ethanol or more. Non-alcohol hand sanitizers, and hand sanitizers with less than 60% alcohol, are not effective in killing as many different types of germs.

Repeated use of topical ethanol products may cause drying or irritation of the skin.

It is important to avoid putting ethanol hand sanitizer near the eyes or mouth.

A person should never swallow hand sanitizer. High concentrations of ethanol can cause alcohol poisoning.