Hand Sanitizer

Last updated: November 1, 2021

What Does Hand Sanitizer Mean?

Hand sanitizers are a type of disinfectant and antiseptic that is used to destroy microorganisms (pathogens) such as harmful viruses, fungi, and bacteria.

Most hand sanitizers are alcohol-based and come in gel, foam, or liquid form. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are able to eliminate between 99.9% and 99.999% of microorganisms after application.

Safeopedia Explains Hand Sanitizer

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers usually contain a combination of isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, or propanol. Non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also available; however, in occupational settings (such as hospitals) the alcohol versions are seen as preferable due to their superior effectiveness at eliminating bacteria.

Hand sanitizers are not effective against all types of pathogens. They do not effectively kill bacterial spores, and certain parasites and viruses are resistant to their use.

Hand sanitizers are less effective if they are applied to skin that is contaminated with certain non-harmful chemicals such as grease. They also cannot effectively remove many harmful chemicals, such as paint, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers such as phosphates.

To be effective, alcohol-based sanitizers must have at least 60% alcohol content; however, higher concentrations (up to 95%) work better and are often legally required for use in safety-sensitive occupations. Hand sanitizers must also be used in accordance with specific standards, such as EN 1500, which describe how to use them most effectively.

Many hand sanitizers are dispensed by automated dispenser systems. These are designed to further guarantee effectiveness by ensuring that everyone who uses the dispenser gets an effective dose.

Although hand sanitizers were originally used primarily within healthcare settings, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 caused them to become a general workplace safety measure. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can effectively kill the COVID-19 virus, and as a result, many OHS agencies responded to the onset of the pandemic by introducing ad-hoc requirements or guidance to encourage their use within workplaces.

The use of alcohol as a sterilization component or antiseptic has been employed for centuries and began to receive scientific study in the 1800s. Hand sanitizers themselves were invented sometime in the latter half of the 20th century and were popularized globally in the 1980s and particularly into the 1990s and early 21st century.

The use of hand sanitizers in hospitals became common around the early 21st century as well, and then became an expected feature in 2009 after the World Health Organization (WHO) published official guidelines recommending their use.

The effectiveness of hand sanitizers depends largely on whether or not they are used correctly. For ordinary use, a hand sanitizer should be rubbed into the skin for 20 seconds, at which point the hand sanitizer should have dried. It will not work effectively if it is wiped off before it is fully dry.

For surgical applications, the hand sanitization process is much more strict due to the importance of ensuring that as many microorganisms as possible are eliminated. In this setting, 90 seconds is generally seen as the shortest allowable application period, and in many cases the sanitizer will be applied even longer.

Surgical use of hand sanitizer also requires that the hand sanitizer used conforms to a recognized quality standard, such as EN 12791, and the actual application process must also conform to a recognized hand sanitizer application standard, such as EN 1500. The EN standards are European, and while they are recognized globally, other hand sanitizer standards may be enforced in other jurisdictions.

Because the use of hand sanitizers in most non-medical occupational settings only became common after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, most governmental OHS agencies do not have dedicated standards that require the use of hand sanitizer in general settings. As such, OHS agencies may provide voluntary guidance to promote the use of hand sanitizer, enforce its use through general duty rules or rely on legal orders put forward by public health agencies to provide a basis for legal enforcement.

Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers are the most commonly used hand sanitizers, non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers may be acceptable in some instances — particularly if there is a concern that a microbial agent that is not susceptible to alcohol is present in the environment. Common chemicals used in non-alcoholic hand sanitizers include triclosan, chlorhexidine gluconate and chloroxylenol. Non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers may also be used in situations where the presence of alcohol may pose a health or safety risk.

A hand sanitizer does not need to be proven to be effective to be sold as a hand sanitizer. As a result, some governments provide lists of hand sanitizers to avoid or lists of hand sanitizers that have been approved as effective disinfectants.


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