The sterile smell, the cool gel—for people who love to feel clean, hand sanitizer is almost, dare we say, euphoric. So what happens when your bottle dries up and you find a spare from who knows when hidden in the back of your medicine cabinet? Does hand sanitizer expire? To ensure you’re not playing fast and loose with all those germs out there, we asked a doctor for the facts.
So, does hand sanitizer expire?
The answer here is a slightly complicated yes, but only if the seal is broken. “Hand sanitizers have a shelf life of about two to three years after they’re opened,” says neonatologist Kevin Kathrotia, M.D., COO of Millennium Neonatology, a national practice of neonatologists and pediatric specialists. He explains that this happens because an opened bottle of sanitizer will lose some of its alcohol to evaporation. “The CDC recommends using hand sanitizers that are at least 60 percent alcohol,” Dr. Kathrotia says. “After enough of the alcohol evaporates that the concentration falls below 60 percent, the sanitizer isn’t as effective.”
If you have an old but unopened bottle of hand sanitizer, you’re in the clear, he says, since the alcohol hasn’t been able to escape. Dr. Kathrotia adds that using a hand sanitizer that’s no longer at least 60 percent alcohol won’t do anything bad to you, but it might not kill all the germs on your hands. Regardless of the state of your Purell (or any alcohol-based brand, they’re all the same), the doc stresses that absolutely nothing will clean your hands and keep you healthy like washing with soap and water will.
If you think you’re in dire straits without your sanitizer, don’t give in to the temptation to make your own out of the Tito’s sitting on your bar cart. “You may have seen some jokes (or serious recommendations) on the internet about using vodka to make your own sanitizer, but liquor is actually only 40 percent alcohol, so it’s not effective,” Dr. Kathrotia says.
Bottom line: Hand sanitizer does expire, but an old bottle is better than nothing when you’re not immediately able to wash your hands.
How to use sanitizer
1. When you’re not able to get to a sink, the CDC says to squirt a quarter-sized dollop of the sanitizing gel into your palm.
2. Spread it around all ten fingers and on the front and back of each hand so that both are covered entirely.
3. Work it in until your hands are dry, and don’t wipe off any extra moisture. Doing that will basically defeat the whole point of hand sanitizer since what you’re wiping away is the alcohol that’s supposed to be helping you out here.
Keep in mind that, per the CDC, “Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs,” so you know what we’re going to say: Wash your darn hands!
Hand sanitizer vs. hand washing
Having some sanitizer on hand (heh) while you’re making a quick stop at the grocery store and practicing safe social distancing is a good idea, Dr. Kathrotia says. Any brand that’s at least 60 percent alcohol will do the trick, and if you happen to have an old bottle with you that might be past its prime, Dr. Kathrotia says it’s better than nothing and you should use it.
But, like he (and we, and the CDC, and your mom) said, nothing compares to hand washing. “As soon as you get home, wash your hands with soap and warm water,” Dr. Kathrotia says. Scrub your palms together, wash between each finger and get the backs of your hands and the germy area under your nails for at least 20 seconds. Then you’ll know without a shadow of doubt that you’re covered. Stay sanitized out there!