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May 7th, 2009
12:16 PM ET

Does hand sanitizer kill bacteria and viruses?

From blogger, Dick:

“Hand sanitizer has been recommended but the bottles say, “Effective against bacteria,” with no mention of viruses. What gives?”


That is a good question. There are not a lot of data actually on how effective those sanitizers are against viruses. There have been some studies done over the years and the conclusion is washing your hands with soap and water is still probably the best idea. If you are having a busy day and it is hard to get to a sink, then carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer would be a good idea.

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Filed under: Dr. Gupta's Mailbag
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. PaulM

    John, unfortunatly some hand sanitizers contain ingredients that are harful if ingested even in small quantities. as for resonsebeta, use it daily and although other members of my family have contracted swine flu, i seem(touch wood) t be safe.

    November 27, 2009 at 5:33 pm |
  2. kjjjkkkkkjjj

    hey well i am in college and doing a research report on Bacteria and my prompt is : An Expert That is for antibacterials for the use of killing bacteria. SOOOOOO Can u help me!

    November 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm |
  3. John

    You all are cracking me up with the hand sanitizer business! Why hasn't anyone suggested squirting a few ounces in your lungs to prevent air borne spread which is the primary "vector" for transmission.

    November 18, 2009 at 1:58 pm |
  4. Paul

    There are Anti-viral hand sanitizers out there. I came found and Anti-Viral Hand Sanitizer called Mentholatum responsebeta I found it on the shelf at Boots the Chemist. After looking on their website i found that is has been scientifically proven to kill H1N1 Influenza A Virus (swine Flu) as well as bacterias such as e-coli and MRSA.It is alcohol free so does not dry out hands.

    September 25, 2009 at 5:16 am |
  5. DK

    Lu, you don't say if you used controls. It's possible the child who used the hand sanitizer had more bacteria on his/her hands to begin with. Comparing before and after treatments would have been more telling. Also, the potato slice, since it is not sterile, may have had more bacteria on it than the other slices.

    June 1, 2009 at 12:56 pm |
  6. Lisa

    There is one product on the market proven effective in independent lab tests to protect against BOTH viruses and bacteria (including MRSA), Vira-Bloc, however, it has become very difficult to find as it literally flew off the shelves due to swine flu. Supposedly kills off/inactivates bacteria and viruses w/in 60 seconds or so.

    It contains both alcohol and ethanol, the latter being more irritating but also more effective against the buggers. I bought the last two bottles I could find.

    June 1, 2009 at 12:01 pm |
  7. Matt W

    I'm sorry to disagree with you Lu, but when they say specific germs targeted, they mean any germs containing a lipid outer coat that can be disrupted- including flu. You are right in that it won't kill some viruses, but it will take out most everyday pathogens. Biological labs use 70% ethanol all the time to keep work areas sterile, and that's essentially what sanitizer is. I don't mean to argue, but I think it's important that people understand that this stuff isn't magic, it's just chemistry.

    May 28, 2009 at 3:38 pm |
  8. Lu

    I had my small class do an experiment. We cut up potato slices. Each child handled a different slice with the following scenarios: 1 washed hands with soap and water, 1coughed into her hand, 1 handled door knobs and keyboards, 1 who had a cold breathed directly one it, and 1 washed in sanitizer. Each slice was placed in a plastic bag. Guess which one had the most disgusting stuff growing on it? THE ONE WITH THE SANITIZER. If you read the fine print they are 99% effective for the specific germs targeted – not necessarily the specific germs normally found in your environment.

    May 28, 2009 at 3:05 pm |
  9. Darrell Young

    Sanjay Gupta misspoke when he said that the "bad cholesterol" was the HDL's. I believe he meant LDL's.

    Listen carefully and you'll hear the fox paw...

    May 28, 2009 at 1:55 pm |
  10. Karl

    I'm a health care provider in the military and I can tel you that Doctors write for anti-biotics so much because patients demand it. I'm in the military so I can tell my patient "No, this is what you need. Take it and you will feel/get better" I educate my patients about how the improper medcines not only do nothing for them but reduce their efficacy later. Some get it some don't But either way they don't get the drugs unless I say so.
    But a civilian doctor can't do that. He gets some self diagnosing "WebMD educated" patient who insists on antibiotics for evey little ailment he HAS to give it. If he doesn't that patient will go elsewhere. Business he can't afford to lose. It won't HURT the patient and they are the ones insisting on it. So it gets perscribed.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm |
  11. Chris

    I recently went to the science museum in Denver and they have an experiment in one of their new exhibits that actually lets people test the effectiveness of antibacterial vs regular soaps and against bleach. I have to say, the results I got were really eye-opening, though I won't spoil them here. Definitely worth checking out though if you can.

    May 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm |
  12. patrickjacques

    i highly recommend that every worker in fast foods , i mean those who are serving foods daily to wear mask. One of them sneezed on my
    coffee one day, I had to toss it into gabbage can. It is not his fault. sneezing can happen at any time

    May 12, 2009 at 3:03 am |
  13. Ceboia

    Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy disease, is caused by prions, NOT viruses. Therefore any spurious advice about clorox against virsus for Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease is not relavent. If you are worried about prion diseases you should contact your local health department. Check out the Wikipedia article on Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease for an overview of the problems of this incurable disease. Keep washing your hands and don't eat any brains or prion infected material.

    May 12, 2009 at 2:42 am |
  14. walter

    I thought Prions are thought resposible for Creutzfeldt-Jakob Desease (CJD).

    May 11, 2009 at 12:56 pm |
  15. Heather

    Just to be on the safe side, I use both methods. I wash my hands thoroughly with soap and water, and after towel drying, I use hand sanitizer. It seems to work. For a person with a weak immune system, I get sick a lot less than one would expect. I also sneeze and cough into the back of my elbow, not into my hands.

    May 11, 2009 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Moroni

    My job bought several cases of hand sanitizer when the Swineflu news came about, but I think what would be more effective if done around here–

    1) Send sick employees home. That way they're not infecting the healthy ones.

    2) Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Also turn away from people when you do so. Wash your hands afterwards.

    May 11, 2009 at 12:12 pm |
  17. Mike Schwab

    Also, there are several fomulations of hand sanitizer that have less than 60% alcohol. These will not kill bacteria and some viruses. The concentration needed to kill bacteria and viruses is 60% to 85% alcohol.

    May 11, 2009 at 11:49 am |
  18. Matt W

    I assume you meant a lipid shell as virtually everything else that you stated was correct. Ethyl Alcohol generally dissolves cellular membranes which are present on bacterial cells as well a several classes of viruses. Additionally, it can denature sensitive proteins leaving many viruses that are non-enveloped sensitive to inactivation.

    Bottom line, wash your hands if you can, but hand sanitizer is a reasonable option in a pinch. I agree with Steve in that 10% bleach might be a bit aggressive.

    May 8, 2009 at 6:06 pm |
  19. Steve T

    Ethyl Alcohol indeed DOES kill a large number of viruses, those that use a protein shell, i.e., "enveloped viruses". Viruses in this category include HIV, influenza, hepatitis B/C and herpes. It is not effective against the non-enveloped viruses like hepatitis A, norvovirus or most enteroviruses.

    Technically there is no "killing" viruses as they are not alive – you can inactivate them. They are more like machines or computer code than plants, animals or bacteria.

    A 10% bleach solution is overkill for viruses, it only requires 3/4 cup (6 ounces) per gallon to kill any known virus and bacteria with a couple of exceptions – Tuberculosis requires a full 10% solution and Creutzfeldt-Jakob virus requires full strength (as does the other spongiforms – "mad cow" and "chronic wasting disease").

    May 8, 2009 at 4:07 pm |
  20. BP

    Whoops! Sorry, Scott - I meant "I couldn't agree more!" 😀

    May 8, 2009 at 1:39 pm |
  21. BP

    Scott – You are confusing bacteria and viruses. An antibacterial is not an antiviral. But yes, anti-bacterial agents can cause mutation of bacteria, making the bacteria harder to fight. The bacteria mutate into a more resistant form. Doctors will prescribe antibiotics (which work against bacteria, not viruses) in cases where bacteria cause something like, say, a lung infection. (Doctors did prescribe antibiotics to patients with colds [colds are rhinovirus combinations] in the past, sometimes just based on the simple fact that the patient demanded them. I think the vast majority will no longer do that, as antibiotics may also kill the good bacteria in ou bodies that fights viruses.)

    I could not agree with your recommendation on diet and exercise. But you'll get less benefit if you are eating a crunchy/so-called natural diet as opposed to a mediterranean/Italian/Sardinian, Japanese or 7th Day Adventist diet. Also great for immune system health is living life with balance, a positive outlook and strong social and family relationships.

    I never use hand sanitizers. But I am very careful to wash the fingertip and nail areas, as I feel (even when applying hand sanitizer), many people neglect these areas.

    Relying on garlic and olive oil, plenty of exercise, and a great outlook on life...

    May 8, 2009 at 1:37 pm |
  22. EXPERT

    No, hand sanitizer will NOT kill a virus. I found it funny that stors were all sold out when the great swine flu made headlines. Hand sanitizer is alcohol based which means it is a "anti-bacterial" NOT an "anti-viral" the flu, no matter what strain is a virus. Heat and bleach are the only real ways to kill a virus. Dont waste your money on "hand sanitizer" mix some 10% bleach in a spry bottle and some paper towles. Otherwise, wash your hands several times a day.

    May 8, 2009 at 12:36 pm |
  23. Scott

    Aren't we resonsible for the way viruses have become resistant to antibiotics? We put "anti-bacterial agents" in hand soaps and body wash and doctors prescribe the heck out of antibiotics for minor cases of flu or even colds. I think people need to embrace nutrition and excercise as ways to help their IMMUNE system protect them instead of relying on antibiotics so much .

    May 7, 2009 at 5:20 pm |