In light of the COVID-19 outbreak hand sanitiser has become much more common in our daily lives. We’ve all seen it recently - at work, in shops, and in public spaces, usually from some sort of bottle or even an electronically controlled automatic dispenser. It comes in several smells and flavours, but the result is the same, a cooling, cleansing gel which kills bacteria and viruses on contact. But how does hand sanitiser work, and what makes it so good at keeping things clean? In this article we’ll explore both of those questions in as simple and easy a way as we can.
The main ingredient of hand sanitiser is usually, if not always, a form of alcohol. But it’s not the kind you might find in a cocktail, unless the bar you’re at specialises in mixing dangerously delicious drinks featuring pure ethanol. The alcohol that’s used in hand sanitiser is usually the more pure or inedible type, such as isopropyl or rubbing alcohol, the aforementioned pure ethanol, or a lab derived alcohol like n-propanol. Disinfectant-grade alcohols are a byproduct in many chemical and beverage industries, and in this pandemic many companies have turned to manufacturing them to fight a nationwide shortage. Sanitisers need to be 75% or even 95% alcohol to be the most effective at fighting diseases.
Any strong alcohol is quite flammable, and also evaporates in air, which is why hand sanitiser feels cool to the touch. You should also stay away from open flames while using hand sanitiser, as it has a potential, although small, to ignite when exposed. We’ve known about alcohol’s flammability for a long time, as well as knowing most alcohols also have a strong disinfectant effect. This is why alcohol-based hand sanitiser is effective against viruses like COVID-19, as it breaks down the virus’s outer shell. Alcohol sanitisers have been in use since the 1990s, and historically mankind has used strong distillates as disinfectants for over 500 years.
The other ingredients of hand sanitiser may include a gelling agent, which binds the mixture together and gives it that pleasant gooey texture, or some kind of agent designed to cause it to resemble a foam. Modern sanitisers also include extra ingredients to help moisturise the skin, or provide additional antiseptic protection against bacterial and fungal spores that may also be present on a person’s hands. Additionally the sanitiser may also contain some form of fragrance or colour to make it more pleasant to use.
So now we know about hand sanitiser’s ingredients, why is it that it’s been chosen for our public spaces during this pandemic? Well, first of all, it’s convenient - extremely convenient in fact. Hand sanitiser reduces the need for sinks or basins or other hand washing stations that can potentially be vectors for COVID-19, and can be dispensed wirelessly by machines just like an automatic soap dispenser. It’s also a much more portable way for people to have a quick hand wash.
The drawbacks? Well, in the opinion of many healthcare professionals, hand sanitiser is a good means of controlling the spread of viruses, although you can go a bit further with at least 20 seconds of extensive hand washing with antibacterial soap and water. However, implementing hand washing facilities in public would be expensive and also potentially dangerous, as again tap handles and sinks can represent a point of contact with the virus. So sanitiser is preferred as it allows us to maintain the ever-important contact-free status that we need, while keeping our hands clean.
In the case of many members of the general public, we recommend carrying hand sanitiser wherever you go, applying it before you enter and exit a building, shop or office, and generally having some on hand as you travel between locations. The best defense is combining this with remembering to wash your hands extensively when at home, using a strong antibacterial soap. As long as there aren’t sinks on every street corner, there will be a place for hand sanitiser as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Have a look at our store for some of our portable buying options, as well as our bulk supplies to kit out your office or reception area with extra protection during these difficult times.