How much alcohol, or ethanol, should hand sanitizer contain?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers should contain at least 60% ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol. These alcohols work to kill bacteria and viruses.

This information comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer typically contains ethanol, which is a colorless, clear liquid that people may refer to as ethyl alcohol.

In this article, we explain what to look for when choosing a hand sanitizer, how much alcohol it needs to contain to be effective, and tips for using a hand sanitizer properly.

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The CDC recommend people use a hand sanitizer containing a minimum concentration of 60%Trusted Source alcohol, or ethanol.

This is because hand sanitizers containing between 60–95% ethanolTrusted Source kill germs more effectively than hand sanitizers containing lower concentrations, or sanitizers with no alcohol at all.

Hand sanitizers with less than 60% ethanol, or non-ethanol-based sanitizers, may not be as effective as killing a variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi, or microbes. They may also only limit microbes from growing, rather than killing them.

According to a 2021 reviewTrusted Source on hand sanitizers, higher concentrations of ethanol may be more effective in killing microbes, but only to a certain level. There needs to be a mix of ethanol with water in order to effectively kill them.

Ethanol concentrations of 80% and isopropyl concentrations of 75% are in the middle of the acceptable range, although levels between 60–95% are suitable.

The review also reports that a study on hand sanitizers containing 85% ethanol showed a significant increase in reducing bacteria compared to concentrations of 60–62% ethanol.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source only permit two types of alcohol in hand sanitizers:

  • ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, which may appear on a product label as alcohol
  • isopropyl alcohol, which may appear listed as isopropanol or 2-propanol

The FDA does not allow methanol or 1-propanol in hand sanitizer, as these may be toxic ingredients.

FDA NOTICE

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced Trusted Source recalls of several hand sanitizers due to the potential presence of methanol.

MethanolTrusted Source is a toxic alcohol that can have adverse effects, such as nausea, vomiting, or headache, when a significant amount is used on the skin. More serious effects, such as blindness, seizures, or damage to the nervous system, can occur if methanol is ingested. Drinking hand sanitizer containing methanol, either accidentally or purposely, can be fatal. See here for more information on how to spot safe hand sanitizers.

If you purchased any hand sanitizer containing methanol, you should stop using it immediately. Return it to the store where you purchased it, if possible. If you experienced any adverse effects from using it, you should call your healthcare provider. If your symptoms are life threatening, call emergency medical services immediately.

According to the CDCTrusted Source, washing hands with soap and water is the best option for preventing the spread of all types of microbes, as well as helping to remove chemicals from the hands.

If soap and water are not easily available, ethanol hand sanitizer is still effective at killing some viruses and bacteria.

It can be a good option for certain settings, such as hospitals or when traveling on public transportation.

However, ethanol-based hand sanitizer is not effective at killing all types of microbes. It is also less effective if people do not let it dry properly on their hands. Additionally, people may also not use large enough quantities of hand sanitizer for it to be effective.

Hand sanitizers may be less effective for the following:

  • removing grease and dirt
  • removing pesticides
  • removing other harmful chemicals, such as heavy metals

If people have come into contact with harmful chemicals, including heavy metals, they will need to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Ethanol-based vs. non-ethanol-based hand sanitizer

The CDCTrusted Source currently advise people to only use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, with an ethanol concentration of 60% or more. This is because non-ethanol, or lower concentrations of ethanol, may not be as effective in killing as many different types of microbes.

Additionally, non-ethanol sanitizers may contain benzalkonium chloride. The CDCTrusted Source does not recommend that people use hand sanitizers containing benzalkonium chloride. This is because it may be less reliable against microbes.

The FDATrusted Source does not advise people make their own hand sanitizer at home.

This is because people may not be able to make home-made hand sanitizers correctly, and they could be ineffective against killing microbes.

Can a person add alcohol to non-alcohol hand sanitizer?

According to the FDATrusted Source, it is not advisable to add alcohol to a non-alcohol hand sanitizer, and is not likely to make a hand sanitizer any more effective.

If people alter an existing hand sanitizer by adding alcohol, it could lead to skin irritation or burns.

To choose an effective hand sanitizer, people can look for:

  • alcohol concentration of 60% or higherTrusted Source
  • ethanol, ethyl alcohol, isopropanol, or 2-propanol as an ingredient
  • additional ingredients, such as aloe vera or glycerin, as these may helpTrusted Source to prevent the skin from drying out

Skip any hand sanitizer containing methanol, 1-propanol, or any hand sanitizer product on the FDA’s list of products to avoidTrusted Source.

People can use a hand sanitizer effectively with the following steps:

  1. Read the instructions on the sanitizer for the correct quantity to use.
  2. Apply the hand sanitizer into the palm of one hand.
  3. Rub both hands together, making sure to cover the backs of the hands and fingers.
  4. Rub the hands together until the gel dries, which will take about 20 secondsTrusted Source.

Always supervise children when they are using hand sanitizer.

Avoid putting alcohol-based hand sanitizer near the eyes or mouth, and never swallow it, as this can cause alcohol poisoning.

Store hand sanitizers out of reach of young children, below temperatures of 105°FTrusted Source, and away from any heat sources or open flames.