/ Health

How much alcohol content is in your hand gel?

Some gels are better than others for keeping your hands clean and safe, but do you pay attention to what’s in them? How do you choose which one to buy?

Unlike the shortages and price gouging we saw earlier this year, it’s now fortunately much easier to find hand sanitiser both to purchase and to use. 

With more in stock it’s much easier to choose a preferred sanitiser rather than simply buying what’s available.

I’ve never been a fan of the strong alcohol smell of hand sanitiser – to me the smell evokes the experience of medical appointments and hospital corridors. 

In looking for the best possible smell, I bought a small bottle from a luxury brand which advertised a ‘resurrecting’ smell – hints of mandarin, rosemary, and cedar. 

The problem is it isn’t hand sanitiser – merely a ‘rinse-free hand wash’. I hadn’t looked into what I was buying and, while it does contain alcohol, the amount isn’t enough to truly sanitise my hands.

It’s down to the alcohol content

Hand sanitiser needs an alcoholic content of at least 60% for it to do its job properly.

Most alcohol-based hand gels will contain ethanol, isopropanol, or a combination of the two. 

Not all alcohol is good though: in the US, the Food and Drug Administration has issued several warnings about hand sanitisers contaminated with methanol which, if absorbed by the skin, can cause severe – and even fatal – medical complications. 

While these are unlikely to be for sale in the UK, it’s a worthy reminder to pay attention to what you’re using to sanitise your hands.

Hand hygiene, soap and sanitiser gel: what you need to know

Do you check the alcohol type and contents when you buy hand sanitiser?
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How do you choose?

What do you look for when buying hand sanitiser? 

Do you pay attention to the ingredients in the sanitiser, or is another factor, such as price, availability, or even smell more important in what you buy? 

Are there certain brands or types of hand sanitiser you avoid buying? Why? 

Do you prefer an alternative hand sanitiser, such as a wipe or a foam based version? 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Have your hand washing habits changed since lockdown restrictions eased?
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The World Health Organisation recommends 80% alcohol for hand sanitiser. I wonder if anyone has tested products to see if they contain what is stated on the label.

I far prefer to use soap and water, where possible.

Is there any evidence that, apart from dodgy online “providers” and “market places” such as Amazon and eBay where we should expect fakes, products are not as described?

The recommended concentration does depend upon whether the alcohol used is ethanol or isopropyl. For producers this is the WHO information.

Amazon’s “official” shop for face masks has been heavily criticised by Which? Has any action resulted?

This article mentions sanitisers containing methanol: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fda-hand-sanitiser-methanol-toxic-alcohol-coronavirus-recall-a9628721.html I presume that the FDA investigation has prompted Jon’s Convo. The easiest form of adulteration is simply to dilute sanitiser with water, so it might be useful to sell it in sealed bottles to discourage tampering.

The FDA recommend a minimum of 60% alcohol.

Those who use the dangerous methanol, instead of ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, or use an under-strength formulation, will manufacture it in their own bottles. I would have thought any adulteration or dilution would take place in bulk before packing?

Have Which? done any checks on marketplace products, I wonder?

Adulteration can take place at any time, which is why bottles of alcoholic drinks are always sealed and tampering can be detected.

I use one called “muc-off” which is British made and is not tested on animals, or at least so they claim. And it’s 80% alcohol.

I’m only using soap and water at home. In shops, I’m happy to use whatever they provide. But I now see many folk who do not sanitise their hands when entering shops.

I keep a bottle of hand gel in the car. It’s labelled as containing 72% alcohol, and came from Waitrose. The smell reminds me of using 70% ethanol to wipe surfaces in microbiology labs.

I like the W C Fields approach to precautions. He said in one of his films “I keep a bottle of whisky handy in case I see a snake . . . . I also keep a snake.”

The first time I heard this was from a friend who was a medical student at the time. He also said that an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor.

Doctors Lawyers and Teachers are the most likely professions to drink more than the recommended weekly amount.

You know when you have a problem with it when close friends and family have pointed this out to you and the alcoholic fuelled thought processes in your brain tell you you haven’t.

Reliable stats on drinking by profession are notoriously difficult to obtain. According to the ONS “socioeconomic factors remain a major determiner of British drinking habits. In total 51 per cent of people in manual jobs such as labourers, bar staff and care workers said they drank in the past week compared to 70 per cent of professionals, which also included architects and teachers.

The report also found that, across the UK, those aged 55 to 64 are the most likely to be drinking heavily and posing the greatest risk to their health.”

It remains a very tricky issue.

Note that effective* non-alcoholic hand sanitisers also exist. The active ingredient is 1 part per 1000 of Benzalconium Chloride, a product known to kill common bacteria and viruses. This is found in “Dettol” Surface Cleanser and some other no taint food preparation cleaning products.

The only difference that I am aware of, is that alcohol requires a very short contact time to kill viruses – around 5 seconds. Other sanitisers may need a contact time of up to a minute.

This is an important point that is often overlooked, regardless of extra precautions demanded by the current outbreak. Just spraying chopping boards and immediately rinsing off is not the best way to disinfect them. Spray, scrub and set aside whilst getting on with other cleaning. Then rinse and dry.

* Nobody yet knows what products are effective against the specific virus that causes Covid-19 as no tests have been published to date – unless I’ve missed some.

You are absolutely right that we don’t know about which products are effective against the virus, Em.

Benzalkonium chloride is one of the quaternary ammonium compounds (QAC) used in disinfectants and biocides. Unlike alcohol, which evaporates quickly, QACs remain on the skin and have been known to cause dermatitis. If used to disinfect chopping boards or anything else in contact with food they should be rinsed off. I suggest that wiping boards with a small amount of bleach and a damp cloth, especially if they have been used to cut raw meat or fish, otherwise a soapy cloth will do fine. Plastic boards can be put in a dishwasher.

Alcohol is an astringent and not recommended for people with sensitive skin, eczema or acne.

Most shops and stores I have visited recently have hand dispensers positioned at their entrances, but there is no indication of the amount of their alcohol content. I usually venture out armed with a pack of Dettol surface wipes that claim to kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses due to 0.40g Benzalkonium Chloride and I believe ethanol. The full ingredients can be found @ http://www.rbeuroinfo.com

Benzalkonium chloride is responsible for a growing number of allergic reactions, Beryl: https://journals.lww.com/dermatitis/Abstract/2016/01000/Benzalkonium_Chloride__A_Known_Irritant_and_Novel.5.aspx The alternative is to carry a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

Would it be advisable to wear gloves when cleaning kitchen counter and work tops with Dettol wipes Wavechange? I have used them for a while with no adverse reaction.

It’s unlikely that you will have a problem, but if you did then gloves would be an obvious solution.

Malcolm says:
17 September 2020

I bought 20 x 1litre of 90% alcohol commercial sanitiser just after the SARS outbreak about8 years ago for my family and friends in anticipation of the next outbreak, we are still using it.

Majority of Hand gels/liquids state that they kill 99.999% bacteria which is great but aren’t we trying to keep a virus at bay?
Look for Hand gels/liquids that state they have tested the product under EN14476 in a approved testing facility. Then you know not only will it kill what you need I.e. viruses but also bacteria which is what wee need.

I would have more confidence if the product was tested to this standard, supplied in a tamper-proof container and there was no reference to killing viruses, which are not alive.

How might a bottle of sanitiser be tampered with? I would have thought anyone supplying fake or understrength sanitiser would just put it in mis – labelled bottles.

The purpose of sealing bottles and other packages is so that tampering after a product leaves the factory can be detected before purchase.

Indeed. On the secondary market it could be diluted or otherwise adulterated.

Even children could adulterate it.

Well, you may be right. But I wouldn’t think dilution would worth the bother. I would have thought anyone wanting to make money out of fake sanitiser would simply fill bottles with rubbish and mislabel them. I don’t see what adulteration would achieve.

By which I meant dilution of existing genuine retail stock.

Edward Little says:
18 September 2020

I bought surgical spirit at the beginning of the lockdown in March and still use it. It has a minimum of 90% ethanol and is considerably cheaper than commercial sanitisers. Buy it in 5 litre quantities and it lasts a long time. It quickly dries and leaves no residue or after-smell. You can decant it into smaller containers to take around with you.

As Beryl mentions above, alcohol is astringent and hand sanitiser contains other ingredients to replace the natural oils removed by the alcohol.

There is a recipe here but the quantities might need scaling down. I’d just buy a reputable brand from a reputable source.

I have made my own with isopropyl alcohol and hand moisturiser. That made sure there was enough alcohol in it.

Judith says:
18 September 2020

I’m concerned by the consistency of sanitisers provided in many public places now. I’m used to my little bottles of gel, and what comes out of the pumps is like water. I don’t know if it’s doing the job, so generally use my own afterwards

Gelling agents are often added to prevent the liquid running off your hands to avoid waste, but don’t necessarily make the product more effective.

Research is ongoing in Australia into the efficacy of tea tree oil in combating viral infections. It’s already widely used in hand creams and gels and is an effective antibacterial and antifungal.

”Terpinin-4-ol the main component of TTO combines with the viral membrane fusion site of haemagglutinin and could prevent the influenza virus from entering the host cell by disturbing the normal vital membrane fusion procedure.”
http://www.teatree.org.au – Tea Tree Oil and the SARS-COVID-2 Coronavirus Pandemic

Maybe Wavechange can produce a little more info on terpinin-4-ol and it’s ability to destroy microorganisms.

Edit: Should read “disturbing the normal viral membrane”

Hi Beryl – I will see what I can find, though I’m now restricted to articles that are available to the general public. 🙁

As a general comment, the modern approach is to extract and purify the active chemicals in natural products or to manufacture them synthetically. This means that our medicines contain a consistent amount of the active material and avoid anything in natural products that might not be desirable.

For the scientifically minded the following website highlights the role of haemagglutinin (or hemagglutinin) the major surface protein of the influenza A virus and is essential to the entry process, it is the primary target of neutralising antibodies.

Makes fascinating reading @ http://www.en.wikipedia.org – Hemagglutinin (influenza)

@beryl – Hi Beryl – I have looked at articles about terpinen-4-ol and various possible uses are being investigated as I’m sure you know, Unfortunately, most of the studies so far have focused on TTO rather than the antiviral/antimicrobial properties of terpinen-4-ol.

The link you provided is a site run by a trade body and warns its members about making claims about products after a member fell foul of the US FDA over TTO and Covid-19: https://teatree.org.au/get_library.php?id=661

Thanks Wavechange, I think the jury is still out on the efficacy of terpinin 4-ol to kill viruses, although there is some evidence of TTOs effectiveness as an antiseptic and antifungal.

That’s true, but it might be better to use terpinen-4-ol rather than TTO, which can cause dermatitis and other problems for a minority of users. TTO contains other chemicals that might be best avoided.

Is there any reason to use this rather than soap and water, which we know works?

According to a report from a Harvard University website. Soap and water doesn’t kill bacteria or viruses whereas hand sanitizers containing sufficient alcohol will. Soap and water will wash away germs but not entirely, whereas hand sanitizers are more effective at destroying them.

See: http://www.health.harvard.edu – The Handiwork of .Good Health.

It’s probably not relevant to discuss the effectiveness of hand sanitisers on bacteria but alcohol-based hand sanitisers will not kill all bacteria. Here is one news item where companies have been warned about making false claims in respect of MRSA, a troublesome organism found in hospitals: https://abcnews.go.com/US/fda-hand-sanitizers-make-false-claims-prevent-mrsa/story?id=13430582

There is no need to wash away or kill all bacteria, since our defences can cope fine with small numbers, the ‘infective dose’ depending on the organism. We don’t yet know much about the infective dose of the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19.

Since the Harvard article was published, Triclosan is unlikely to be found in hand washes, thank goodness.

This is a typical explanation of the effectiveness of soap and water https://www.qub.ac.uk/coronavirus/analysis-commentary/how-soap-kills-covid-19-virus/

It’s never a good start when an article refers to killing a virus – which is not alive.

Maybe, but the key point is made and that, surely, is what matters.

Thanks, Malcolm. I found that an interesting article because I have been intrigued for some time by “Micellar Water” products which have been heavily advertised lately and are making huge profits for the manufacturers. I had, rightly as it seemingly transpires, considered this to be another piece of marketing mumbo-jumbo to elevate an ordinary natural material to mythical and pseudo-scientific status. Repeated thrice and spoken quickly in the adverts it has clearly been very persuasive. “Soapy Water” would not sound so special and seem so efficacious.

I suggest that whether soap and water kills, destroys, eradicates or eliminates a virus is really just semantic sophistry which the ordinary consumer need not agonise over. If it works and it’s cheap it serves its purpose.

I am pleased to see further vindication of the case for not needing ordinarily to use “anti-bacterial” handwash.

It’s better if information intended for public consumption is written by those with a reasonable understanding of their subject, otherwise misinformation is spread.

Micellar water is essentially a stable suspension of tiny oil droplets in water and it’s easy and inexpensive to make at home. I believe ladies use it to remove eyeshadow and massacre.

Viruses are parasites with DNA or RNA nucleic acids but no cells which is why they need others cells in order to replicate.

”Although viruses challenge our concept of what “living means”, they are vital members of the web of life.”

See: http://www.scientificamerican.com – Are Viruses Alive?

Thanks Beryl. It’s not uncommon that commonly used terms are less than ideal for describing scientific concepts. It’s amazing that even some bacteria can be affected by viruses (bacteriophage), which can arrest bacterial growth and divert cellular processes to produce large numbers of new viruses.

Still overpriced at about £10-£12 / litre or more snf ususly billed as “75% alcohol”
I bought 5 litres of 99% lab grade isopropyl alcohol for £22.75
Put it in all those empty hand wash pump action bottles. Enough for the whole family.
Job done.

I’ve seen 5 litre containers of hand sanitiser on sale for prices of £25 and £30 in a couple of my local hardware stores. Just buying one of those might suit many folk better.

Diane J9nes says:
19 September 2020

I am Allergic to Alcohol so it’s very difficult for me if shops or restaurants try to insist I use Sanitiser so I have to explain all about my allergy, and I wash my hands regularly. You can get alcohol free sanitisers which I would be interested to hear just what you think of these and can Which do a feature on people with Allergies during the Pandemic.

I suspect your problem is a reaction to a component of hand sanitiser rather than alcohol itself. You could carry a small bottle of a product that does not cause a problem and use this instead of the sanitiser provided.

Patrick Nethercot says:
19 September 2020

I’ve seen sprays in use supposedly to sanitise an area. I am unable to find a spray that will destroy corona viruses. I was in a discount store and they had sprays that were “Anti-viral” but the small print listed three virus types it worked for, but not corona viruses. I am thinking mainly of a car interior here between passengers. What can people suggest?

The Welsh Government advice for public transport operators includes this text :

“Where possible transport operators should use anti-viral cleaning products that will kill the COVID-19 virus such as ones manufactured to British Standard BS EN 1276 or BS EN 13697.”

The following website might be a good starting point –

Picked at random [and without recommendation] from a search engine’s results are the following possible sources –
Many other suppliers exist.

Check the formulation, product description and instructions for use before purchasing.

There is no obvious solution that will work for all types of car surface – door handles, seats, carpets, linings, dashboard, glass … . Soap and water is best but, particularly as winter draws in, you will soon end up with a saturated interior – condensation, damps seats, mould, etc. Ethyl or isopropyl alcohol is effective, but must have 20% water content and it may damage some surfaces. You must be careful not to use too much and clear the vapour. In summary, it is impossible to thoroughly disinfect your car interiour between passengers.

But approach the problem from a different perspective. What is your aim here? There is no point in having a hygenic vehicle, if the next Covid-infected passenger starts coughing and touching surfaces, immediately undoing all your hard work.

The bottom line is that cars don’t catch Covid-19, people do. So to prevent person-to-person transmission, wear a face mask and insist your passengers do the same before entering the vehicle. Have a container of hand gel in each of the door pockets and again insist your passengers use it. You could wipe door handles between passengers using a disinfectant surface wipe, as an added precaution. Frequent air changes are important, so keep vents open and the fan running. Open windows if the opportunity arises.

Current advice is not to share cars other than with members of your household if possible.

Patricia Brown says:
21 September 2020

I find that it’s extremely difficult to to buy the correct hand sanitiser mainly because it’s impossible to read the very small print on the label even if it does give the alcohol content.

There are some posts here suggesting the use of 90%+ ethyl alcohol, as though that is somehow more effective and/or cheaper that correctly formulated hand sanitiser.

It should be noted that the correct proportion of water is an **essential ingredient** of hand sanitisers and performs a useful role. A very high concentration of alcohol may be effective against certain types bacteria, but is ineffective at disabling viruses!

“The water in the [alcohol-based] antiseptic also plays a key role as [virus] proteins are difficult to disrupt by this method in the absence of water. This means that alcohol solutions are most effective when they contain 60–80% alcohol rather than 100%.” (Source UKRI)

Here’s a link to the article that Em has referred to: https://coronavirusexplained.ukri.org/en/article/pub0006/

@wavechange – Thanks for posting the link, which I rarely do as it leaves my posts in moderation.

Having read the article again, I think it is well written for those that have a scientific brain, but little knowledge of biochemisry. A nice counter to all the dangerous rubbish circulating.

I know about the importance of water from my time as a novice microbiologist, Em. Pure ethanol or the more commonly available 95% ethanol is unlikely to be as effective, though the reason is not obvious. I use soap and water in preference to hand sanitiser wherever possible.

In order to avoid posts with links going into moderation you need to log in and persuade the powers that be that you won’t post unsuitable links. Guilty until proved innocent.

There a an excellent CDC paper on the various disinfectants and sanitisers here

As a complete layman, my understanding is that soap and water, alcohol based sanitisers and those based on quaternary ammonium compounds of which benzalkonium chloride (BAK) is one of the most common all work in somewhat different ways and can be complementary.

It is said that soap and water’s main action is to mechanically remove bacteria and viruses with a secondary disinfectant action.

The other two depend somewhat on the structure of the pathogen we are trying to remove. For example BAK apparently attacks the fat components of cell (bacteria) walls and on the surface of some viruses. CV-19 is a “skinny” virus which is why BAC isn’t as effective as alcohols.

The action of alcohols, particularly in the presence of water, has already been explained here.