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Alcohol-Based Vs. Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers

Alcohol-Based Vs. Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers

Posted by The Cleaning Station on Dec 11th 2020

Hand sanitizers are now a universally-found item in our homes, our cars, in our bags, as well as grocery stores, restaurants, and other facilities we all frequent. Hand sanitizers are an important part of healthy hand hygiene, and combat the bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that threaten our health every day.

There are many questions and misconceptions about hand sanitizer. Is hand sanitizer with alcohol better than alcohol-free hand sanitizer? Which hand sanitizer works the best? Which hand sanitizer is the most effective one to use?

At the moment, the market offers us two distinct choices: Alcohol-based gels and Alcohol-free foaming hand sanitizers. Both options have their benefits and drawbacks. 

gel hand sanitizer

Pros and Cons About Alcohol-Based Gel Sanitizers

Alcohol-based products contain one of two active ingredients: alcohol or isopropanol. Both are effective antiseptic products that kill germs and bacteria. They share many of the same properties. Their main difference is on a molecular level. One distinct item that they both share is that they are highly flammable. The FDA recommends that hand sanitizers should contain 60%-95% alcohol for maximum efficacy. This high concentration has long raised concerns in both the media and the health care community. Hospitals and other facilities need to consult their local fire authorities when planning the installation of alcohol-based dispensers. Facilities must adhere to local regulations and codes when dealing with such flammable compounds.

Another concern with alcohol-based hand sanitizers is potential toxicity hazards upon ingestion. Most dispensing mechanisms for hand sanitizers are fairly easy to open. They are also often placed in accessible locations to encourage use. Caution must be exercised whenever children and chemicals share the same environment. With the high levels of alcohol concentration, consumption can lead to acute alcohol poisoning.

A common side-effect with the repeated use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers is the dryness and cracking that it can cause on hands. This occurs because the alcohol effectively strips away oils in your skin that retain moisture. The removal of these oils can lead to increased skin irritation on the hands and can even lead to symptoms of dermatitis. Another complaint we often hear is that the alcohol used in these products are damaging to floors and walls. If the dispensers drip, leak, or someone spills some hand sanitizer, the alcohol can stain the areas.

Alcohol-based products have long been the recommended course of action (second only to hand washing) by leading global health organizations such as the CDC, WHO, and the FDA. They are still the most used sanitizer in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Its effectiveness has been proven time and time again, withstanding the test of time.

Pros and Cons of Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers

Most alcohol-free products available today are available as a water-based foam. The products contain the active ingredient Benzalkonium Chloride, a quaternary ammonium. Unlike alcohol-based products, alcohol-free hand sanitizers often contain less than a 0.1% concentration of Benzalkonium. They still provide the same level of protection as alcohol-based products. The rest of the solution is mainly water and will often be enhanced with skin conditioners such as vitamin E and green tea extract. Alcohol-free sanitizers are non-flammable, and the low concentrations of Benzalkonium make it relatively non-toxic. However, these products are all recommended for external use only.

Alcohol-free hand sanitizers entered the market to address the concerns and complaints of alcohol-based gels. In many ways, they have succeeded. Often, these solutions are much easier on the hands. They also pose much less of a threat in cases of accidental ingestion. Alcohol-free hand sanitizers are a low fire hazard and are non-damaging to surfaces. One other clear benefit is the extended protection that occurs. An alcohol-based product’s ability to kill bacteria ends once the product has dried on the skin, but alcohol-free products with Benzalkonium continue to provide protection after the solution has dried.

One possible drawback with alcohol-free solutions is that they most often come in the form of a foam. While this usually results in a more pleasing experience for the user, it does require a special foaming mechanism in the dispenser. This can make converting from a non-foaming system cost prohibitive as it would need new hardware to be installed.

Despite some clear benefits, alcohol-free based products have yet to gain real traction in the health market. Alcohol-based gels continue to be favored by health organizations, and therefore seen as a more credible solution by many in the field. It's not that these organizations don't recognize the effectiveness of benzalkonium based solutions. The term "alcohol-free" could apply to any number of products on the market. It's a broad term that makes it impossible for agencies like the CDC and WHO to endorse. There are, however, recent studies from the Journal of Hospital Infection that note Alcohol-free hand sanitizer quickly and effectively inactivate SARS-CoV-2.

alcohol free foaming hand sanitizer

What is the Right Kind of Hand Sanitizer?

Both types of products do more or less the same job in killing harmful microbes. Choose the right product by weighing your needs against your environment, budget, and personal preference.

For example, if you work in school, correctional facility, rehab center or manufacturing facility, an alcohol-free system would most likely provide you the most peace of mind and protection from ingestion or fire. They are also readily available on the market.

If you work in a hospital that requires you to follow strict guidelines set by the FDA, you may have to go with an alcohol-based gel. You may also wish to go with a gel if you are looking for a personal solution to carry in a handbag or backpack. Alcohol-based dispensers are often smaller and more compact than the foaming mechanisms required with alcohol-free products. This can be ideal for travel and portability.

In terms of budget, alcohol-free hand sanitizers are less expensive with more applications per gallon. A gallon of each may cost the same, but you will usually get 2,000 to 3,000 more applications out of the foaming hand sanitizers. This is because the dispensing mechanism adds air to the solution during application, making the product go much further before running out.

Whatever your needs, use an effective hand sanitizer as part of your preventative defense against illness and disease. This is a crucial part of a healthy environment. We manufacture both types of these hand sanitizers here at The Cleaning Station (a Zogics company) and would be happy to answer any questions that you may have.