Although it may seem hard to believe, your hands harbor 10,000 to 10 million bacteria at this very moment. While most of these germs do not pose a health threat, the trick is to reduce the disease-causing bugs to levels low enough for your immune system to handle. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand washing with soap and water is the preferred method for keeping your hands clean. However, if soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol is recommended.
The active ingredient in hand sanitizer is usually an alcohol. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control recommend ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol or a combination of both in concentrations ranging from 60 to 95 percent. Alcohol is an antimicrobial that kills bacteria. Benzalkonium chloride is another FDA-approved active ingredient in some hand sanitzers. Although it is not an alcohol, benzalkonium chloride also works to kill bacteria and some viruses on the hands.
Humectants are chemicals added to hand sanitizers to attract moisture to the skin surface. Glycerin and propylene glycol are humectants commonly used in these products. By "holding" water, they help prevent your skin from drying with frequent use of hand sanitizer.
Emollients and Moisturizers
Isopropyl myristate is an emollient, which is a chemical that seals the skin surface and makes it smoother. It is made from a substance naturally found in nutmeg, coconut oil and some animal fats. Many hand contain isopropyl myristate and moisturizers, such as aloe vera and tocopherol acetate, or synthetic vitamin E.
Carbomer and amniomethyl propanol are common ingredients used as binding agents. Emulsifiers keep other ingredients from separating and thicken the hand sanitizer into a gel.
Hand sanitizer manufacturers include other ingredients, such as fragrance and FDA-approved colorants, to distinguish their products from competitors.
- Emerging Infectious Diseases: Hand Sanitizer Alert
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Handwashing -- Clean Hands Save Lives
- Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy: Effectiveness of Hand Sanitizers with and without Organic Agents for Removal of Rhinovirus from Hands
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Topical Antimicrobial Drug Products for Over-the-counter Human Use