This Is the One Reason Why Your Hand Sanitizer Isn't Working

Heed this CDC warning or you're risking coronavirus contamination.

Whether or not you were a big proponent of hand sanitizer before the coronavirus pandemic, chances are that you now have bottles stashed all over your home, in your bags, and maybe even in your car. Liquid or gel sanitizer is a convenient stopgap for when you can't immediately get to a sink and wash your hands with soap and water, but it's not totally foolproof. To be sure that your hand sanitizer is killing any bacteria or viruses on your skin, there are a few things you have to be aware of. Some warnings you know well by now: Sanitizer has to be at least 60 percent alcohol—even better 70 percent or more—to be effective; if you leave it out in the sun, the alcohol may evaporate; and expired product won't protect you as well. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued another guideline about hand sanitizer use that you may not have considered before.

Sure, you can (and should!) use hand sanitizer whenever running water and soap aren't accessible. But if your hands are filthy—as in, covered in visible dirt or grime—science shows that hand sanitizer alone won't properly work.

Among other studies, the CDC cites 2010 research published in the Journal of Food Protection, which found that "alcohol-based compounds" are effective at killing germs on "lightly soiled hands," but that hand washing and other options become the safer choice when hands are more soiled. "Hand sanitizers may not be as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy," the CDC sums up in its guidelines.

Washing dirty hands in sink
Shutterstock/Kobzev Dmitry

What does this mean for you? If you're doing something that gets your hands literally dirty—and not just with imperceptible microorganisms—you should take breaks to properly wash them with soap and water for the requisite 20 seconds. Think, for example, of digging in your garden, working on your car, or cleaning up a spill. And certainly avoid touching your face with your soiled hands, even if you've rubbed them with hand sanitizer. Per the CDC, it's not working at its full effectiveness in this scenario.

As with all of its literature on hand sanitizer, the CDC notes that hand washing is always, always preferable—even when you can't see the dirt on your hands. And for more COVID-19 cleaning advice, check out 9 Places in Your Home You Didn't Know You Needed to Disinfect.

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