Every time there’s a breakout of a contagious virus, like the flu or the more recent coronavirus, hand sanitisers will be one of the first things to fly off the shelf. And for good reason, because with these viruses spreading through contact, you’re going to want to keep your hands as clean as possible.
Even without a new virus in the air, a little bottle of hand sanitiser is still a useful thing to carry around! If you find yourself in a situation with no soap and water, hand sanitiser will do the trick in an instant.
But what’s actually in hand sanitiser that makes it so effective in killing viruses, bacteria and other germs? Here are some ingredients to take note of the next time you pull out yours!
Alcohol is the whole reason your hand sanitiser works. Almost all viruses, bacteria and other microbes can’t survive contact with alcohol. But in order to do so, hand sanitisers should contain alcohol at a minimum of 60% concentration. This means that in every 100ml bottle of sanitizer, 60% of the volume should be made up of pure alcohol. All commercially available hand sanitisers will state the percentage of alcohol they contain, so finding the right one will be a breeze. Also, be sure to apply enough so that the alcohol has time to work on your skin before it evaporates!
Alcohol-free sanitisers use other anti-bacterial agents, but aren’t as recommended as alcohol-based sanitisers. One of the most popular anti-bacterial compounds, triclosan, has been linked to harmful health and environmental effects. As such, it has been banned for use in soaps and body washes by the FDA. You can still find triclosan in hand sanitisers, but it may be best to stay away from it.
Water is present in hand sanitisers to dilute the alcohol content. Fun fact: if you’ve run out of hand sanitizer, you can easily make a stand-in by mixing vodka with distilled water. However, vodka doesn’t strictly contain the sufficient alcohol content to kill germs. So the next time you’re at the pharmacy, pick up an alcohol solution (usually kept in the wound-dressing section) and keep that on hand.
Your home-made hand sanitiser of alcohol and water will work just fine, but you may find it as convenient to use as splashing pure water on your hands. It drips everywhere! That’s why commercial sanitisers thicken up their formula with some thickening compounds like polymers and glycerin. Thanks to these, the sanitiser remains in an easily-managed gel until you rub it around in your hands. However, these compounds are hard to find for a DIY project. So if you can’t thicken your watery sanitiser, try putting it in a spray bottle instead. This will work great to disinfect surfaces as well!
What do sanitisers have to do with flavour? This is in here for one simple reason: to make the sanitiser taste terrible, so no one will drink it as a cheap alcohol alternative! As chemist George Zaidan explains to National Geographic, manufacturers will include nasty-tasting bitter compounds such as isopropyl alcohol and aminomethyl propanol.