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Comparing Alcohol-Based Vs. Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers

Hand sanitizers are a common item on our desktops, in our bags, as well as in grocery stores, gyms, and other facilities we all frequent. Hand sanitizers combat the bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that threaten our health every day.

But that still leaves many questions. Which hand sanitizer works the best? Which hand sanitizer is the most effective one to use? Is hand sanitizer with alcohol better than alcohol-free hand sanitizer?

Currently, the market provides us with two distinct choices: Alcohol-based gels and Alcohol-free foaming hand sanitizers. Both alcohol-based and alcohol-free hand sanitizers have their benefits and drawbacks. Choose the one that is right for you. Consider how and where you will need to use hand sanitizer.

does alcohol free hand sanitizer work

The Benefits & Concerns Of Gel Alcohol Hand Sanitizers

The active ingredient in hand sanitizers that are alcohol-based is usually either alcohol or isopropanol. Both are effective antiseptic ingredients that help these alcohol sanitizers kill germs and bacteria. They share many of the same properties. Their main difference is on a molecular level. One distinct property that both of these hand sanitizer ingredients share is that they are highly flammable. The FDA recommends that hand sanitizers should contain 60%-95% alcohol for maximum efficacy. 

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

A common side-effect often associated with the repeated use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers is the dryness and cracking that it can cause on the hands. This occurs because the high concentration of alcohol in the hand sanitizer strips away oils in your skin that retain moisture. The temporary absence of these oils can lead to increased skin irritation on the hands. It can even lead to symptoms of dermatitis. Another concern is that these products are damaging to floors and walls. The alcohol can stain the areas where dispensers may drip or leak.

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

alcohol free hand sanitizer dispensers

Advantages of Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers

Most non-alcohol hand sanitizer products available today come in a water-based foam. The no-alcohol hand sanitizers 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. No alcohol hand sanitizers 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. It’s 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 about gels. In many ways, they have succeeded. Typically, these solutions are much easier on the hands. They also pose much less of a threat in cases of accidental ingestion. Hand sanitizers without alcohol are a low fire hazard and are non-damaging to surfaces. One other clear benefit is the extended protection that occurs. Alcohol-based products’ ability to kill bacteria ends once the product has dried on the skin, but benzalkonium-based products continue to provide protection well after the solution has dried.

Disadvantages of Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers

One possible drawback with nonalcohol hand sanitizers is that they most often come in the form of 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 be installed.

Despite some clear benefits, non-alcohol hand sanitizer products have yet to gain real traction in the health market. Alcohol-based gels continue to be favored by health organizations and are 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" or "non-alcohol" 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.

Benzalkonium Chloride vs Alcohol

As mentioned above, benzalkonium chloride and alcohol are hand sanitizers' two most commonly used active ingredients. While both can effectively kill germs and bacteria, they have different pros and cons. Benzalkonium chloride, or BZK, is a non-alcohol-based ingredient that has been shown to effectively kill germs and bacteria. How does benzalkonium chloride kill bacteria? Per the AJC, it performs like other disinfectants that kill germs, by disrupting the cell membranes of the target organisms. Unlike alcohol-based sanitizers, BZK does not dry out the skin, making it a good choice for sensitive skin users. Additionally, BZK is less flammable than alcohol-based sanitizers, making it safer to use around heat sources. However, BZK is less effective against certain viruses, such as norovirus, than alcohol-based sanitizers.

On the other hand, alcohol-based sanitizers typically contain either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. These types of sanitizers are highly effective at killing a wide range of germs and bacteria, including viruses like COVID-19. Alcohol-based sanitizers also dry quickly, leaving no residue behind. However, the high alcohol content can be harsh on the skin, leading to dryness and irritation with frequent use. Additionally, alcohol-based sanitizers are highly flammable, making them a potential fire hazard if used improperly.

Ultimately, the choice between BZK and alcohol-based hand sanitizers depends on personal preference and individual needs. If you have sensitive skin or are frequently around heat sources, BZK may be a better choice. If you need a sanitizer that can quickly and effectively kill a wide range of germs and bacteria, an alcohol-based sanitizer may be the way to go. Regardless of which type of sanitizer you choose, it is important to use it properly and frequently to help prevent the spread of illness.

gel hand sanitizer

What is the Right Kind of Hand Sanitizer?

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

For example, if you work in a 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. If you work in a hospital that requires you to follow strict guidelines set by the FDA, you may need 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
, non-alcohol 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 the 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 hand sanitizers here at Zogics and would be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

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