There’s been a run on hand sanitizer, bad enough that two stores I visited this weekend were completely cleaned out. There’s also a tweet circulating that says not to bother with the stuff, and wrongly claims it doesn’t kill viruses. So let’s be clear—yes, hand sanitizer can kill coronavirus. But you will also be okay without it.
How does hand sanitizer work?
The alcohol in hand sanitizer disrupts the outer coating of many, but not all, germs. It’s not very effective against bacterial spores or against viruses that don’t have an outer envelope, but it is effective against most everything else.
Coronaviruses do have an envelope, so that’s good news here.
Do coronavirus prevention recommendations include hand sanitizer?
Yes, they do. The CDC, for example, includes this recommendation on their page about protecting yourself from COVID-19:
If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Not all hand sanitizers use alcohol, so check the label to be sure.
Is washing my hands better than using hand sanitizer?
Yes, but hand sanitizer is a good stopgap if you can’t get to a sink or if your hands are visibly dirty.
Mucus, dirt, or other substances on your hands can actually protect microorganisms from being killed by the alcohol. So if your hands aren’t clean, it’s important to actually wash them.
When you wash your hands, any kind of soap is fine (it doesn’t have to be antibacterial), and you’ll want to scrub for 20 seconds, or about two rounds of humming “Happy Birthday.”