Part 1 in everything you need to know about hand sanitisers : alcohol vs alcohol-free hand sanitisers


In this blog, we will be taking an in-depth look at some of the most asked questions surrounding hand sanitising. From answering ‘is alcohol-free hand sanitiser better than alcohol-based hand sanitiser?’ to ‘which is better: fragrance-free or scented hand sanitiser?' - and all the questions in between. 

In recent years, it has been more pronounced than ever before - maintaining good hand hygiene saves lives. With speeches constantly broadcasting around the world, strengthening the call of the NHS, we have all been exposed to the many key health messages in the passing years - in fact, the ubiquity of such messages has unfortunately dampened the importance to such an extent that those very same health messages have started to dwindle into the background, becoming a faint drone that we are all growing tired from - however, it is vital that we all stay vigilant when it comes to hand hygiene. Though we edge towards the tail-end of the pandemic, COVID-19 and many more viruses and infections, from respiratory to stomach illnesses, are still prevalent today. As such, it is important that we strive to make handwashing a lifelong habit. 

Washing your hands is proven to substantially reduce potential pathogens and research has shown that it provides a more inclusive form of protection than using hand sanitisers (see the ‘hand wash vs hand sanitiser’ blog for a more inclusive explanation), however, due to the 'on the move' availability hand sanitising gels can offer, there has been a huge increase in popularity that has inevitably provoked some insightful questions. 

Alcohol hand sanitisers vs alcohol-free hand sanitisers: which is better? 

As simple as it sounds, the main difference between these two hand sanitisers is the content, or absence of, alcohol. Following advice from the British medical journal (BMJ), alcohol-based hand sanitisers are generally known to have a greater antimicrobial effect. Labelled with contents including ethanol, ethyl alcohol, isopropanol or 2-propanol, alcohol-based sanitisers that have a content of at least 60% alcohol -  the percentage that has been proven to kill 99.9% of germs - have been found to be most effective and are beginning to be more widely used in commercial settings such as offices, restaurants, manufacturing facilities and healthcare environments. This is mainly due to the duality of effectiveness and accessibility. 

On the other hand, alcohol-free sanitisers will, rather obviously, contain no alcohol content. Instead, alcohol-free sanitisers will usually be labelled as containing benzalkonium chloride combined with water and other ingredients that will help moisturise and soften the skin after use. A common misconception is that without the alcohol content, alcohol-free sanitisers have to be less effective at killing germs, however, recent studies have caused this to be a point of contention. A study by researchers at Brigham Young University have found that alcohol-free hand sanitiser was just as effective at disinfecting surfaces as its alcoholic counterpart. Their research found that benzalkonium chloride, along with several other quaternary ammonium compounds regularly found in disinfectants, killed at least 99.9% of germs within 15 seconds - the same percentage as an alcohol-based sanitising gel. 

Despite this, there remain two main points of consideration when asking which sanitiser is better - environment and skin sensitivity. 

Following the recommendations of both the CDC and the World Health Organisation, an alcohol-based hand sanitiser with a content value of at least 60% alcohol will prove most effective at killing all germs, bacteria and infections. Now, although this can be seen as the general rule, it is also advisable to be cautious. Alcohol-based sanitisers should be kept away from children and sunlight for they can pose both a safety and fire risk. For this reason, if your occupation or lifestyle places you in a school setting or around children, then a alcohol-free hand sanitiser may be more fitting. Similarly, if you have sensitive skin or have previous experience of irritations caused by an alcohol-based sanitiser (that has been approved by the FDA), then it could be beneficial to switch to an alcohol-free sanitiser to help moisturise your skin. Indeed, side effects like dermatitis can become a huge factor when considering whether or not an alcohol-free sanitiser is the best fit for you. While frequent use of alcohol-based sanitisers can irritate the skin and cause side effects in the form of itches and rashes, the FDA have also recently warned that “symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and dizziness can occur after applying alcohol-based hand sanitiser to the skin”. 

Scented sanitisers vs unscented: which is better? 

The use of either scented/unscented hand sanitisers will prove an effective way to maintain good hand hygiene and reduce the spread of germs, bacteria and viruses. Neither the scented or unscented sanitiser will be more effective than the other, in fact, most reasons for favouring one will often come down to simple personal preference. However, there are a few considerations that could swing the scales one way or the other. 

Many health and beauty products, including hand sanitisers, feature a vast array of fruity, flowery, and garden-fresh aromas - alongside the quite often questionable scents purposed for children. Scented hand sanitisers combine the effectiveness of a hand sanitiser with a pleasant aroma. Though not for everyone, there can be benefits to leaving your hands with the after smell of lavender, lemon zest or … ‘bubble gum’ … Indeed, when coronavirus first swept the globe, many manufacturing companies introduced child-friendly hand sanitisers that were fragranced to keep them interested in maintaining good hand hygiene. This, admittedly money grounded idea, showed great success and is still a method used to entice children into learning the fundamentals behind maintaining good hand hygiene. But fragranced sanitisers are not exclusive to children. Once again we return to the phrase ‘personal preference’, for many of us who enjoy the lasting scent of lavender after washing our hands or the fresh smell of cinnamon to help mask the usually overwhelming stench of alcohol and chemicals, a sweet smelling fragrance can serve as a pleasant afternote (and reminder) that hand hygiene is still very important in staying safe and healthy.   

So why do people choose unscented/fragrance-free hand sanitisers? Well, similar to the reasoning behind favouring alcohol-free sanitiser, there is a cause for concern if you have sensitive skin. The chemicals added to give a potent after-smell can cause skin irritation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “if your skin is sensitive or suffers from eczema or other skin conditions, it is recommended for you to use fragrance-free products, so that these will not cause further irritation to your skin”. In this instance, it would be best to avoid any unnecessary exposure to chemicals and instead select a fragrance-free hand sanitiser that includes natural emollients. 

Keep up-to-date : part 2 coming soon! 

Today we have taken an in-depth look into everything hand sanitiser -

From alcohol-based vs alcohol-free to sweetly scented vs fragrance-free, we have taken an in-depth look into everything hand sanitising - but there is so much more to explore! With so many questions surrounding the world of hygiene and healthcare, part 2 will be exploring more of the most asked questions as we dive deep into the science behind sanitising and explore the ‘question mark chemical’ medical experts are becoming increasingly concerned about - triclosan. 

Keep up-to-date by visiting the Sterizen blog