Rushing out for hand sanitiser? Read these 5 surprising facts first

Fears of contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) have sent the price of hand sanitiser skyrocketing, as supermarkets warn that stocks are low. However, is it really that effective against viruses? And is it value for money? Here are five surprising facts about hand sanitiser.
Alcohol-based hand sanitiser may help to limit the spread of coronavirus
Source: Tradol (Shutterstock)

As the number of novel coronavirus infections rises across the world, people are reaching for hand sanitisers to try and prevent its spread. The World Health Organisation (WHO) – which recently declared the virus an international public health emergency – has issued a list of preventative measures, including a recommendation for people to clean their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub, commonly known as hand sanitiser.

This has triggered a mad dash for the product and Australian retailers such as Coles and Chemist Warehouse have listed warnings on their websites, suggesting that their stocks are running low due to unprecedented demand. The prices of the liquid gels have doubled at some retailers, as stocks dwindle across the country.

A screenshot of Coles Online's warning to customers about low supplies of hand sanitiser products, taken 7 January, 2020. Image: Canstar
A screenshot of Coles Online’s warning to customers about low supplies of hand sanitiser products, taken 7 January, 2020. Image: Canstar

With hand sanitiser-fever in full swing around the country, we did some digging and found some surprising facts about the lotions boasting to be bug killers:

1. Washing your hands is the best defence

While it may seem simple, thoroughly washing your hands with soap under running water is generally considered best practice. The WHO recommends washing your hands regularly and using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser only if soap and water are not available.

The US-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends the use of soap and water whenever possible, as it is the most effective method for removing all types of germs from your hands. That’s because, according to the CDC, while alcohol-based sanitiser quickly reduces the number of microbes on your hands in some situations, the liquid doesn’t eliminate all germs. And soap and water can be more effective at removing certain kinds of germs and viruses, such as vomiting and diarrhoea culprits cryptosporidium, norovirus and clostridium difficile.

2. The label ‘antibacterial’ or ‘antimicrobial’ does not always mean it works better

Although it sounds good, hand-sanitisers that claim to be ‘antibacterial or ‘antimicrobial’ may not be as effective and could even possibly be worse for your health than other hand sanitisers, according to some studies.

Firstly, using antibacterial sanitiser can kill the good bacteria on your hands as well as the bad, which could potentially lower your resistance to disease. And overexposure to antibiotics in general may lead to bacterial resistance and the formation of ‘superbugs’. Superbugs have evolved to resist many types of antibacterials, which is why alcohol-based sanitisers are now used in clinical settings such as hospitals.

Thirdly, an active ingredient in many antibacterial and antimicrobial products is triclosan. While it is already banned for use in over-the-counter consumer products in America, triclosan can be found in many Australian household products, including toothpaste and antibacterial soaps and hand sanitisers. It is controversial because the effects of the agent on hormonal balance and bacterial resistance are relatively unknown and it has even been linked to a higher risk of osteoporosis in women, in recent medical studies.

3. Products with at least 60% alcohol tend to work best

If soap and water are not available, an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that is at least 60% alcohol is the most effective way to kill germs, according to the Australian Department of Health. Sanitisers that contain less than 60% alcohol are less likely to work equally on all types of germs and generally only minimise the growth of bacteria, rather than eliminating germs completely.

According to research conducted by the University of Toronto, 70% alcohol concentrate is the most effective, more so than 90%, as water can help the alcohol in a hand sanitiser to better penetrate germ cells. Another thing to keep in mind is that alcohol-based hand sanitisers primarily contain ethanol, which can cause alcohol poisoning if swallowed. Sanitisers that are attractively packaged or scented may be particularly tempting for young children, so use them with parental supervision.


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4. It won’t work if your hands are dirty or greasy

While hand sanitisers have proven to successfully combat germs in clinical environments such as hospitals, they are less effective if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. ‘Real world’ scenarios like eating or handling food, going to the gym or gardening may reduce the effectiveness of hand sanitiser, and in these cases washing your hands with soap and water will probably be more effective.

5. You have to let it dry completely

Hand-sanitiser needs to be applied correctly for it to effectively kill germs and eliminate them from your hands. Not applying an adequate amount or accidentally wiping it off before it has dried are common causes of sanitiser misuse. The CDC recommends following the label of your hand sanitiser to determine the correct amount needed and covering all surfaces of both hands when you apply it until they are dry.

Where can I find hand sanitiser?

Alcohol-based hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol can ordinarily be bought from most supermarkets and chemists in Australia. Specific stores that stock hand sanitiser products include:

  • Amazon
  • Coles
  • Woolworths
  • Chemist Warehouse
  • Catch.com.au

However, bear in mind that due to increased demand caused by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, many of these stores may have limited supply, while some products may have sold out.

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This article was reviewed by our Sub-editor Tom Letts and Senior Finance Journalist Amanda Horswill before it was published, as part of our fact-checking process.

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