Comparing different types of hand sanitizers and their efficacy

Hand sanitizers have become an essential tool in maintaining hygiene, particularly in environments where soap and water are not readily available. With various types of hand sanitizers on the market, understanding their efficacy and appropriate uses is crucial for effective infection control. This article explores the different types of hand sanitizers, comparing their ingredients, mechanisms of action, and effectiveness against pathogens.

Types of hand sanitizers

Hand sanitizers can generally be categorized into two main types based on their active ingredient: alcohol-based and alcohol-free.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers (abhs): these contain ethyl alcohol (ethanol), isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol), or n-propanol as the main active ingredient. The alcohol concentration typically ranges from 60% to 95%, which is critical for killing bacteria and viruses.

Alcohol-free hand sanitizers: these usually contain benzalkonium chloride, triclosan, or other antimicrobial agents instead of alcohol. They are less drying to the skin but often less effective at killing pathogens compared to alcohol-based formulations.

Efficacy of different types

Against bacteria: alcohol-based hand sanitizers are highly effective against most bacteria, including many types that cause illness in humans. Alcohol-free sanitizers can also be effective but may not work as quickly or against as broad a range of bacterial species.

Against viruses: alcohol-based sanitizers are effective against many viruses, particularly enveloped viruses like influenza and coronaviruses, which have a lipid membrane. Non-enveloped viruses, however, such as norovirus and rotavirus, are more resistant to alcohol-based sanitizers. Alcohol-free products generally offer less protection against viruses.

Against fungi and other pathogens: both types of sanitizers have some efficacy against fungi, though alcohol-based products typically provide more reliable protection.

Factors affecting efficacy

Alcohol concentration: for alcohol-based hand sanitizers, the cdc recommends products with at least 60% alcohol. The effectiveness increases significantly as the concentration approaches 70-90%, but it decreases if the alcohol content is too high or too low.

Contact time: the sanitizer needs to be in contact with the skin for a sufficient amount of time to be effective. Most alcohol-based sanitizers evaporate quickly, reducing contact time but still killing a high percentage of pathogens quickly.

Amount used: applying a small amount of hand sanitizer may not cover all areas of the hands thoroughly. A larger volume is necessary to ensure complete coverage and efficacy.

Nature of contaminants: the presence of dirt, grease, or other organic matter can reduce the effectiveness of hand sanitizers. In such cases, washing with soap and water is more effective.

Appropriate uses and limitations

When to use: hand sanitizers are an excellent option for cleansing hands when soap and water are not available and when hands are not visibly soiled or greasy.

Limitations: hand sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs, and they are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy. They also may not remove harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and heavy metals.


Hand sanitizers are a convenient and effective tool for reducing pathogens on hands, especially in settings where soap and water are inaccessible. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are generally more effective against a wider range of organisms, including bacteria and viruses. However, when hands are visibly dirty, the best practice is to wash with soap and water. Understanding the differences in efficacy between types of hand sanitizers can help individuals and healthcare providers make informed decisions about their use in maintaining hand hygiene.

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