Hand sanitisers: hygiene in a bottle

Hand sanitisers can be an effective alternative when soap and water are not available. Find out more about how they work and how best to use them.

Hand sanitisers: hygiene in a bottle

Regular hand washing, using soap and running water, is one of the best defences against many of the viruses, bacteria and other microbes that can make us sick.1-5 However, when water is not available, in the car or on public transport for example, or when your already clean hands just need an extra boost, hand sanitisers are convenient, portable and effective.

Australian and international hand hygiene guidelines recommend alcohol-based hand sanitisers and hand washing as the best methods for removing microbes.1,6

It is not necessary for the soap or the hand sanitiser to be branded as ‘antibacterial’ to have an effect. Soap works by physically removing organisms from the skin, while alcohol damages proteins in microbes and leaves them unable to survive. Both products target a range of disease-causing microbes that includes bacteria and viruses.


Are all hand sanitisers similar?

Hand sanitisers come in different forms, including gels, creams and foams. Most products contain some form of alcohol, but a few are alcohol-free.

If you are looking to buy a hand sanitiser, there is good evidence showing that alcohol-based products (with 60%–95% ethanol or isopropanol7,8) work well against many of the viruses and bacteria that spread infections like colds, flu and diarrhoea.1,3,4,7-11

Studies have also reported that alcohol-based hand cleaners are actually less irritating and drying to the skin than soap and water.8,12,13 Brands that contain moisturisers can reduce the level of irritation even further. This is good news for people who need to clean their hands frequently.

If you do use alcohol-based hand sanitisers, remember alcohol can be toxic to children,14 so keep the containers out of reach of young ones. Take care around open flames as well, because alcohol, even as part of a hand rub, is highly flammable.

Alcohol-free hand rubs are also available, but current evidence says they may not work as well as soap and water or alcohol-based cleaners, and some may be more irritating to the skin.6-8,15,16


How to use hand sanitisers correctly

To get the best possible protection from your waterless hand sanitiser make sure to apply enough product so you can cover both hands thoroughly, front and back and in between your fingers. Cleaning should take 20–30 seconds.

For step-by-step instructions see the How to Handrub poster.

Visit the Hand Hygiene Australia website for more information.


Using hand sanitisers in hospitals and other clinical places

At home, or at work or school, soap and running water provide an easy and inexpensive option for keeping hands clean and removing potential disease-causing germs.

At medical sites such as hospitals or dental practices, soap and water remain important, however all staff, patients and visitors are also encouraged to use alcohol-based hand rubs regularly, even if their hands look clean.



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  3. Tuladhar E, Hazeleger WC, Koopmans M, et al. Reducing viral contamination from finger pads: handwashing is more effective than alcohol-based hand disinfectants. J Hosp Infect 2015;90:226-34. [PubMed].
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