Anti-bacterial hand gels are flying off the shelves at pharmacies across the country faster than Amazon can deliver them in bulk to your front door, but we were curious: When push comes to shove, does hand sanitizer work? The short answer: Yes, it does, and having some on hand (heh) is a good idea. But it’s not as simple as squirt, rub, et voilà! Clean! As Dr. Purvi Parikh, M.D., allergist and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health explains.
“One of the reasons hand sanitizers work to keep you healthy is by rubbing your hands together,” Dr. Parikh says. “The friction from the rubbing helps break down viruses and bacateria that make you sick.”
Hand sanitizer works when it’s made up of at least 60 percent alcohol, according to the CDC. The agency recommends washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water as a first line of defense against everything from the sniffles your kids pick up at daycare to more serious illnesses like the novel coronavirus. But, when you’re shuffling from school drop-off to that lunch meeting across town and back again for your presentation at the office, sometimes a sink is nowhere to be found and it’s hand sanitizer to the rescue.
To make sure you’re getting the most out of your bottle of Purell, however, it’s important to follow these steps:
1. Use enough hand sanitizer
This is not the time to be conservative with the amount of product you’re using (let’s save that for the beautifully packaged face oil you just dropped $42 on). Squirt a generous amount—about the size of a quarter—of sanitizer into the palm of one hand to start, the CDC says.
2. Cover your hands entirely
It’s really easy to just rub your palms together and call it a day, but do make sure you’re spreading the sanitizer around each and every finger, all over both palms and on the backs of your hands as well. After all, we might only touch things with our fingers and palms, but germs have a life of their own and can travel quickly once on our skin (ew).
“One huge place for germs to hide is under the fingernails,” Dr. Parikh says. “Keep your nails short if you can to avoid having germs grow in there, but if you have long nails, make sure to scrub under them.”
3. Work it in until it dries
The last step of washing your hands is drying your hands—a germy controversy in its own right but that’s for another time. To really reap the full benefit of its bacteria and virus-killing superpowers, hand sanitizer should be rubbed in until your hands are dry all on their own. This should take at least 20 seconds, Dr. Parikh says. Wiping off sanitizer when it’s still wet means you’re basically rubbing off the alcohol that’s doing the actual germ-wrecking. Take a sec to work it in and let it do its thing.
4. Wash your hands when you can
Dr. Parikh says that the average person can use hand sanitizer up to five to seven times per day before they put themselves at risk of using it so often that it actually kills the good bacteria on their hands and sets them on a path toward auto-immune diseases. She says to wash your hands with soap and water when you can to supplement hand sanitizers.
5. Please don’t swallow it
Yes, hand sanitizer is going to help protect you from viruses and germs that cause colds, but this is an external-only product. Swallowing hand sanitizer can cause alcohol poisoning and will make you sick enough to head straight to your local emergency room—exactly what we’re trying to prevent.
If you’re looking for something proactive to do on top of keeping your hands properly sanitized, Dr. Parikh urges people to use their common sense and to continue to do the things they know they should: Don’t forget to wash your hands with soapy water whenever possible, cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm (not your hands!) and stay away from people who are sick.