As we become collectively more aware of the bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that threaten our health every day, hand sanitizers have become a common place item on our desktops, in our bags and are popping up more and more in grocery stores, gyms and other facilities we all frequent.
The next, natural question is which hand sanitizer works the best; which hand sanitizer is the most effective one to use?
Currently, the market provides us with two distinct choices: Alcohol-based gels and Alcohol-free foaming hand sanitizers, both of which have their benefits as well as their drawbacks. Choosing which one is right for you is often a simple matter of personal preference, however, we should also consider how the product will be used and where.
Alcohol-Based Gel Sanitizers
Alcohol-based products will contain one of two active ingredients; alcohol or isopropanol, a form of secondary alcohol. Both are effective antiseptic products that kill germs and bacteria, and they share many of the same properties. Their main difference is on a molecular level. One distinct property that they both share is that they are highly flammable. The FDA recommends that hand sanitizers should contain 60%-95% alcohol for maximum efficacy; a high concentration which has long raised concerns in both the media and the health care community. Granted, a lot of this negative exposure is ungrounded, however, hospitals and other facilities do need to consult their local fire authorities when planning the installation of alcohol-based dispensers, adhering to local regulations and codes when dealing with such flammable compounds.
Another concern with alcohol-based sanitizers are the potential toxicity hazards upon ingestion. Most dispensing mechanisms for hand sanitizers are easy to open and are placed in accessible locations to encourage use. Caution must be exercised whenever children and chemicals such as these share the same environment. Given the high levels of alcohol concentration found in these products, consumption can lead to acute alcohol poisoning in both 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 hands. This occurs because the alcohol present strips away oils in your skin that retain moisture. The temporary absence of these oils can lead to increased skin irritation on the hands and even symptoms of dermatitis. Another complaint is that the alcohol found in these products are damaging to floors and walls, causing staining where dispensers may drip or leak.
Alcohol-based 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 widely used sanitizer by far in hospitals and other health care facilities because its effectiveness has been proven time and time again, withstanding the test of time.
Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers
Most alcohol-free products available today come in a water based foam and contain the active ingredient Benzalkonium Chloride, a quaternary ammonium. Unlike the high concentration of alcohol in alcohol-based products, alcohol-free hand sanitizers often contain less than a 0.1% concentration of Benzalkonium, while providing the same level of protection. 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 nonflammable, and the low concentrations of Benzalkonium make it relatively non-toxic, though these products are all recommended for external use only.
Alcohol-free hand sanitizers entered the market to address the concerns and complaints that stemmed from the use of gels. In many ways, they have succeeded. Typically, these solutions are much easier on the hands and pose much less of a threat in cases of accidental ingestion, their potential as a fire hazard and are non-damaging to surfaces. One other clear benefit is the extended persistency that occurs. Alcohol-based product’s ability to kill bacteria ends once the product has dried on the skin where the benzalkonium based products continue to provide protection well after the solution has dried.
One possible drawback with the 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 (as opposed to gels) it does require a special foaming mechanism in the dispenser, often making converting from a non-foaming system cost prohibitive as it could require 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, however, 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.
Right Product, Right Place, Right For You
Because both types of products do more or less the same job in killing harmful microbes, choosing the right product is a matter of 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. 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, making them ideal for travel and portability.
In terms of budget, alcohol-free hand sanitizers do seem to be less expensive providing more applications per gallon. Though a gallon of each may cost the same, you will usually get 2,000 to 3,000 more applications out of the foaming hand sanitizers simply because the dispensing mechanism adds air to the solution during application, making the product go much further before running out.
Whatever your needs, having an effective hand sanitizer as part of your preventative defense against illness and disease is a crucial part of a healthy environment. We manufacture both types of these hand sanitizers here at Zogics and would be happy to answer any questions that you may have.