Alcohol-Based vs. Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers


With the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, hand sanitizer products have reached newfound popularity. Even those who never considered using hand sanitizers are now actively purchasing them and those who already frequently bought these products are currently replenishing their stock. Recognized manufacturers are seeing an incredible boost in sales, and even beauty brands are now marketing their own sanitizers.

Alcohol-Based vs. Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers

But as you navigate through the slew of sanitizers during the COVID-19 era, it’s important to learn more about these products than their basic function of killing common germs. For instance, it’s critical to know about the two basic groups that are categorized as alcohol-based and alcohol-free sanitizers.

What Are the Main Ingredients in Both Types of Sanitizers?

As the general reference suggests, the main difference between both types of hand sanitizers is the usage of alcohol.

Alcohol-based Sanitizers

Alcohol-based sanitizers commonly use either ethyl alcohol (ethanol) or isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) as their active ingredient. Both of these types of alcohol are legally approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in hand sanitizers.

Alcohol-free Sanitizers

Alcohol-free sanitizers do not use alcohol as an active ingredient. Instead, they utilize other surfactants or compounds as their base. When it comes to alcohol-free hand sanitizers, the FDA only approves of benzalkonium chloride as an active ingredient for these products. However, a small number of manufacturers still use benzethonium chloride in their products.

What Does the Difference Mean for Both Types of Sanitizers?

After learning about the ingredients used in these hand sanitizer products, it gets easier to understand the difference they make in real-world usage.


Both alcohol-based and alcohol-free hand sanitizers are classified as topical consumer antiseptic rub products. This means that they are made to be used without running water over your hands. But there’s a difference between their overall texture.

Alcohol-based sanitizers are available in a gel-like viscosity, while alcohol-free sanitizers are mostly packaged as a water-based foam. This makes them quite different in terms of their overall form. However, both types of sanitizers dry out when rubbed against your skin.


Alcohol-based sanitizers that use ethanol or isopropanol are safe to put upon your skin. However, they run the risk of toxicity or poisoning when ingested.

This is especially applicable to children, who can inadvertently drink sanitizers that are lying around without adult supervision. But the risk also holds true for adolescents and adults, who may ingest hand sanitizers to become drunk. This could cause adverse reactions and alcohol poisoning.

Some alcohol-based sanitizers that are manufactured by lesser-known companies may also have quantities of methanol. While it is a type of wood alcohol, it is toxic for both topical and oral use. The FDA continuously monitors hand sanitizers for the usage of methanol and issues consumer warnings whenever it finds any brand that has this type of alcohol in it.

On the other hand, alcohol-free sanitizers are relatively safe due to not having a risk for alcohol poisoning. Their risk for damage is also lower in the case of accidental ingestion.


Any alcohol-based hand sanitizer is highly flammable. While this doesn’t pose a threat in small quantities such as a bottle in your bag or purse, it can be a cause for concern if you are storing a larger stock of these sanitizers.

In comparison, alcohol-free sanitizers are non-flammable. This makes them safe to keep in larger quantities and provides them with an edge over alcohol-based sanitizers in terms of shelf-storage.


Alcohol-based sanitizers are highly potent against common bacteria, germs, and viruses. However, they are only active until they dry out. This means that they are able to protect your hands against microscopic contaminants when they are being rubbed on the skin. But once the gel-like product dries on your hand, your skin becomes susceptible to hosting external microorganisms again.

In contrast, alcohol-free sanitizers remain active for a few hours after usage. This helps you stay protected against common bacteria, germs, and viruses for a longer time.


While alcohol-based sanitizers are only active for a short period of time, they are highly effective against common microorganisms including viruses. In fact, most alcohol-based sanitizers are able to kill over 99 percent of germs.

On the other hand, alcohol-free sanitizers are effective against most common bacteria and viruses. But they fall short in comparison to their alcohol-based variants, which are far more powerful at combatting a larger variety of germs.


Due to their overall efficacy, alcohol-based sanitizers are the primary choice for most healthcare providers. This is one of the reasons why you can typically see them in public settings, especially in healthcare facilities.

Alcohol-free sanitizers act as a competitor to alcohol-based products due to lower toxicity, flammability, and proactive mechanism. They also cater to the segment that doesn’t want to use alcohol-based products due to personal preference or fear of drying out the skin.

Efficacy Against the Novel Coronavirus

When it comes to choosing a hand sanitizer to protect yourself against COVID-19, alcohol-based sanitizers are the way to go. It’s because they are the only type of sanitizer that is recommended by health experts for use against the novel coronavirus.

For protection against COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) specifically recommends using an alcohol-based sanitizer with more than 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropanol as active ingredients. Other health professionals make similar recommendations for the usage of alcohol-based sanitizers over alcohol-free alternatives.

This makes alcohol-based sanitizers the primary and recommended choice during the pandemic. While looking for a sanitizer, you should buy the suggested alcohol-based variants.

You May Use Either Type of Hand Sanitizers in Normal Circumstances

After the COVID-19 outbreak is over, you can turn to alcohol-free sanitizers out of personal preference for long-term usage. With that being said, you should be aware that they will not protect you from common microorganisms as much as alcohol-based sanitizers would.

At the same time, it is also prudent to note that washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to protect yourself against most foreign contaminants, germs, and viruses. You should only use any type of hand sanitizer when you are unable to access soap and water.

As long as you remember this information, you can safely use either type of hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean and clear of germs.

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