What To Look For In A Hand Sanitizer, From An Immunologist

When you think of hand sanitizer, you most likely picture a pump bottle of Purell. While the classic alcohol-based product is commonly the face of hand hygiene, other brands, including Trader Joe’s and Dr. Bronner’s have entered the hand-san game. But with labels like natural and organic, how do we make sure we’re buying the safest and most effective product?

We consulted immunologist Heather Moday, M.D., to find out what ingredients we should be looking for in our hand sanitizer to best protect against germs. 

What ingredients are most effective?

According to Moday, Purell and other alcohol-based hand sanitizers usually contain some percentage of ethyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol, also called isopropyl alcohol. “Bonus if it’s from an organic or non-GMO source,” Moday says. Hand sanitizers with 60% or more of these ingredients have been shown to reduce and kill most bacteria and viruses, but “the most effective percentage is around 70%,” she shared. 

Many hand sanitizers also have emollients (aka moisturizers) and small traces of water in their ingredients. This is because “alcohol is very drying and can actually over time weaken the skin barrier by drying it out,” Moday says. Water will also allow sanitizer to better penetrate the skin and reach the viruses they’re trying to kill. 

As far as natural or herbal alternatives? “Many of the constituents in natural sanitizers such as lavender, witch hazel, or thyme have some antimicrobial benefits,” Moday says, “but there are no studies that they really effectively kill bad germs on your hands.” 

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And what ingredients should we avoid?

Triclosan should be avoided, according to Moday, because it’s currently “being investigated by the FDA as hormone disrupter and contributing to antibiotic resistance.” You should also be aware of parabens, phthalates, and synthetic fragrances. 

If you’re looking for a sanitizer that smells good, try to find products naturally scented by essential oils. 

How effective is hand sanitizer?

While there is no difference in the efficacy of spray, gel, and foam hand sanitizers, or organic versus nonorganic, Moday stresses that using these products does not replace good hand washing. “If hands are soiled or have come in contact with any toxins or pesticides, washing with good old soap and water is the best way to go,” she says. 

Some major bugs that can’t be killed by hand sanitizers include Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. (“the nasty bacteria that causes diarrhea”), Norovirus (“the bug that brings down entire cruise ships”), and MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant staph infection). 

Maintaining hand hygiene is important during all seasons but especially if you or others around you are getting sick. To make sure you’re actually practicing the aforementioned “good hand washing,” read these tips from an infectious disease specialist.

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