How Hand Sanitizers Work?

Once used primarily at healthcare centers, hand sanitizers have now become a commonly used household item. Hand sanitizers are being preferred, as they work quickly to eliminate germs, can be used anywhere, are easy to use and do not lead to wastage of water. They are currently playing a key role in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic, as neither vaccines nor effective medicines are available to control the virus. So, how do these hand sanitizers work? Well, here are some important facts you need to know about hand sanitizers.

Process of denaturation – Most hand sanitizers have alcohol, which can be either ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol). Alcohol eliminates germs via a simple biochemical process known as denaturation. Under this process, the alcohol destroys the basic structure of the cell that makes up the germ.

It destroys proteins or nucleic acids, which in turn results in partial or complete destruction of the quaternary structure, tertiary structure, and secondary structure. This eventually disrupts cell activity and causes its death. Denaturation can be achieved with other methods such as applying acid, ultraviolet rays, heat or radiation.

The great thing about denaturation is that germs cannot develop immunity to this process. It is a physical process and germs don’t have a mechanism to deal with physical destruction.

How hand sanitizer kills coronavirus? – In case of Covid-19 virus, denaturation occurs when the lipid envelope surrounding the virus is damaged/destroyed upon exposure to alcohol. When the protective fatty layer is destroyed, the internal components of the cell are exposed and they start to dissolve and die. The effect is the same when you wash your hands with soap and water.

How to choose the right hand sanitizer? – For an alcohol based hand sanitizer to be effective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the concentration of alcohol should be in the range of 60 to 90 percent. At this level of potency, hand sanitizers can effectively work to eliminate a broad range of viruses, bacteria and fungus.

Hand sanitizers are no doubt quite useful, but it’s no replacement for a proper hand wash with soap and water. That’s because there are some forms of germs that can survive the alcohol in hand sanitizers. For example, diarrhea causing norovirus can still be active after a rub of alcohol based sanitizer. The same is true for hepatitis A and polio virus.

Similarly, sanitizers also do not remove dirt and grease, heavy metals and pesticides. So, washing your hands with soap and water is always the better option. However, since soap and water cannot be used in every situation, hand sanitizers will continue to play an important role in eliminating germs and keeping us safe.

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