Everyone is trying to protect themselves and their loved ones from Coronavirus. And while wearing masks and hand washing are clearly the easiest and most cost-effective ways to stay healthy, there are times and places when this simply not possible.

Whether it is shopping, eating a picnic, using public transport, or performing everyday tasks away from your own home, finding a place to wash your hands is not always possible. The situation is harder with small children, who touch and pick up everything, but do not yet fully understand the dangers of germs and viruses. Nor do they have the dexterity for proper hand washing.

In all of these situations (and many more) it is useful to have a sanitiser or disinfecting gel to hand – literally.

However, not all hand sanitisers are created equal.

To stay healthy, it is important to know which active ingredients are most effective and killing coronavirus.

The Center for Disease Control gives the official advice for all Americans on how to avoid the virus. Their website clearly states that, “CDC recommends using ABHR [alcohol-based hand rubs] with greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol in healthcare settings. Unless hands are visibly soiled, an alcohol-based hand rub is preferred over soap and water in most clinical situations due to evidence of better compliance compared to soap and water. Hand rubs are generally less irritating to hands and are effective in the absence of a sink.”

The coronavirus has created a massive surge in demand for disinfecting products. As the health consultancy Advisory Board reported, “Data from Nielsen show hand sanitizer sales spiked 313.4% in the week ending Feb. 29 when compared to the same week in 2019.”

But these days, knowing what hand sanitisers are effective against viruses is a matter of grave importance. As the report notes, “Some of the most popular hand sanitizer brands, including Germ-X and Purell, sell alcohol-free products that use benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient instead of alcohol. And in some cases, it can be hard to tell the difference between the non-alcohol products and the ones that are more effective. ProPublica found that a search for ‘coronavirus hand sanitizer’ on Amazon produces results for alcohol-free products that do not clearly state they don't contain alcohol.”

With demand high enough to empty supermarket shelves, some people have resorted to making their own sanitisers. While this can be a thrifty way to avoid infection, it is important to concoct a strong enough mixture with good quality ingredients.

Online recipes are often based on alcohol found in the drinks’ cabinet, yet the World Health Organization recommends that hand sanitiser must contain 96% ethyl alcohol if it is to kill viruses and bacteria. Whiskey, rum, and vodka simply don’t have the power.

”Usually, the proof is double the percentage of alcohol in a spirit,” explains Dr Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Vodka is only 80 proof, or 40% alcohol—you need at least 60% to effectively kill viruses and bacteria.”

Another common homemade ingredient for hand sanitiser is aloe vera. While this substance can provide antioxidants, enzymes, Vitamins A and C, and is highly anti-inflammatory, it is not essential if the main goal is to kill microbes. Instead, aloe vera may dilute the alcohol in the mixture, lowering its effectiveness.

Instead, professional hand sanitisers contain emollients. This ingredient is added to protect the skin, especially from a harsh ingredient such as alcohol. Without them, homemade sanitisers may in fact be damaging to the hands, cause cracking and splitting of the skin, which in turn increases the risk of infection.

Emollients are described by dermatologist Dr Leslie Baumann as, “lipids (fats), oils, silicones, or chemical additives such as propylene glycol.”

Clearly there is more to hand sanitiser than may appear at first glance. Under normal circumstances, any cream or gel which smooths and moisturizes the skin may do. However, we are living in strange times.

Staying healthy has never been more important, and our health has never depended so much on having clean hands.

In the world of 2020, it is important to know that not all hand sanitisers are the same.

Photo credit: EVG photos from Pexels, Artem Podrez from Pexels, & Pexels