Hand Sanitisers: Handy or Harmful?

Ever visited a public bathroom only to find there is no soap…argh?! Should you find an alternate bathroom with soap or rely on the trusty pocket hand sanitiser?

Hand sanitisers and handwashing remove viruses and bacteria from the hands. This is turn minimises your chances of becoming ill and prevents the spread of diseases. Hand sanitisers have been proven to work more effectively in killing germs on the hands than handwashing with soap (Tamimi, Carlino, Edmonds, & Gerba, 2014). Although, there are some disadvantages associated with their use.

Most hand sanitisers contain ethanol or isopropanol, a type of alcohol (between 60-95% in concentration). If ingested, this can lead to alcohol poisoning. Symptoms include slowing down of the heart rate and breathing, low blood sugar, coma and seizures. This could be potentially fatal in young children (Reckitt Benckiser, 2016).

Hand sanitisers are also highly flammable and can cause skin irritation. They are not as effective if the hands are soiled with dirt, grease and grime. Unfortunately, hand sanitisers are not a universal killer of germs. They do not protect against some germs, including norovirus (gastro virus), salmonella (bacteria in contaminated food) and MRSA (bacteria causing skin infections) (Archer, Wood, Tizzard, Jones, & Dargan, 2007).

Investigating hand sanitisers

Therefore, if soap is not available, the following guidelines are recommended for the safe use of the trusty pocket hand sanitiser:
• Use half a teaspoon and apply to all areas of the hand including between the fingers, back of the hands and fingertips
• Wait for the hand sanitiser to dry completely before eating
• Parent or carer supervision required for use with children and adults with confusion (e.g. dementia)
• Store securely and out of reach of children
• Do not use around an open flame or heat source (e.g. stove, hand dryer or hair dryer)
• Discontinue if skin irritation occurs
• Remove excess dirt by rinsing or wiping off before use

So, finding the alternate bathroom with soap is ultimately the best option. It will keep those nasty germs away so you can enjoy good health today!

Written by Elise Meier

Archer, J., Wood, D., Tizzard, Z., Jones, A., & Dargan, P. (2007). Alcohol hand rubs: Hygiene and hazard. British Medical Journal, 335(7630), 1154-1155. doi:10.1136/bmj.39274.583472.AE

Reckitt Benckiser. (2016). Safety data sheet: Dettol healthy touch moisturising hand sanitiser Retrieved from http://www.rb-msds.com.au/uploadedFiles/pdf/Dettol%20Healthy%20Touch%20Moisturizing%20Hand%20Sanitizer-v4.2-D0330132.pdf

Tamimi, A., Carlino, S., Edmonds, S., & Gerba, C. (2014). Impact of an Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer Intervention on the Spread of Viruses in Homes. The Official Journal of the International Society for Food and Environmental Virology, 6(2), 140-144. doi:10.1007/s12560-014-9141-9


  1. This was a really informative post! I never knew that hand sanitiser did not protect against norovirus, salmonella, or MRSA. It sounds like soap+sanitiser is the best method to prevent the spread of germs.

  2. Hi Elise, this is a really interesting post and I think especially important considering we’re in the midst of the worst flu season yet! At work there’s a push for people to use hand sanitiser constantly to reduce our risk of infection (or causing infection) which like you mentioned might not always work depending on the pathogen or we might be over-doing it to the point of us causing skin irritations and therefore further increasing risk of infection!

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