The 0.01% that Purell Doesn’t Kill

Hand sanitizer or soap? What are the best self-cleaning practices to protect yourself during a pandemic? You might be purchasing a hand sanitizer that doesn't work in the fight against Coronavirus. Here is what you need to know.

With households currently stockpiled to the brim with hand sanitizers, toilet paper and other cleaning agents, it’s important to know how effective these products really are in the fight against COVID-19. It’s especially tempting to buy brands that guarantee that they will kill “99.9% of bacteria” on any surface.

Hand sanitizers that don’t contain the Center of Disease Control’s recommended minimum of 60% alcohol are still flying off the shelf and selling out on Amazon for outrageous prices. Make sure that the brand you are purchasing is trusted and used by millions of other consumers. (Purell is a good example of this).

And, worst of all, the use of labeling and advertising is misleading for the consumer. In some products, their false claims and advertisements make people believe that hand sanitizer can provide 100% protection against the novel Coronavirus.

The reality is, is that many of them don’t.

The maker of Purell hand sanitizer, GOJO Inc., is currently facing two class-action lawsuits accusing them of “misleading claims” by stating that their products can kill “99.9 percent of illness-causing germs” (read article here).


So, before you purchase your next 18-pack case of hand sanitizer, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

Question #1: How do Hand Sanitizers Work?

It always seemed mysterious to me how this liquid solution can protect you from bacteria. But⁠—as I have looked critically at the research that has come out⁠—I can say yes, it really does. As a matter of fact, it works exceedingly well for most strains of bacteria and viruses. 

This killing machine targets bacterial cells on the surface of you hand. All you have to do is rub it on, and viola, they’re dead.

It all comes down to its key player and primary ingredient: isopropanol alcohol (also commonly known as rubbing alcohol). If you rub this alcohol on your hand, you will instantly kill most living things.

Hand sanitizers are active against all types of viruses except norovirus, which causes a certain type of diarrhea

Linda Anegawa, PlushCare

Rubbing alcohol has enough water content to penetrate the virus’s outer coat and disturb its biological mechanisms. For bacteria, hand sanitizer kills the cell membrane (the outer coating that protects the organism) in order to prevent it from replicating and growing.

Question #2: Hand Sanitizer Vs. Washing Your Hands

So… which one is better? Hand sanitizer or hand-washing? Doctors say that the golden standard is soap. The reason being is that, although hand sanitizers are highly effective, they can not physically remove the virus or bacteria from a surface. This means that companies like Purell do not do their job as thoroughly as they may lead you to believe.

Hand sanitizer may kill viruses and certain bacteria, but it does not ‘clean’ your hands like soap and water do

Athanasios Melisiotis, Penn Medicine

Remember, especially during this pandemic, it is critical to wash your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds after grocery shopping or running errands outside your home. (I would definitely recommend longer if possible).


Question #3: When Should You Wash Your Hands?

The short answer? Whenever you can.

During this pandemic, it is important to wash your hands with soap or carry a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer as a secondary precaution. The CDC currently recommends to wash your hands after these situations:

  • after being in a public place
  • after touching a surface that may have been frequently touched by others (doorknobs, tables, handles, shopping carts, etc.)
  • before touching your face (eyes, nose, and mouth in particular)

If you sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice in a row, that will roughly equal the right amount of time.

Question #4: What is an EFFECTIVE Hand Sanitizer?

It is always important to read the fine print on the back of the bottle. First, check the ingredients to make sure that the company is not adding an audacious amount of preservatives and chemicals to their product. If they do, that may be the first red flag.

Secondly, check the alcohol content on the back. The CDC recommends consumers to use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Question #5: Where can I buy hand sanitizer? If I can’t find it in the store, can I make my own?

This is a really interesting question, and I might make another post related to it (comment below if you would like to read a step-by-step guide for making your own hand sanitizer). It’s actually better to rely on soap to do the job. You can also purchase hand sanitizer online, i.e. through Amazon, and they will ship it to your front door.

For now, if there is no hand sanitizer on the shelves, do not worry!


Try to be especially mindful of washing your hands during the COVID-19 pandemic, flu season, and when you’re taking care of people who may be immunocompromised. I believe that washing your hands with hand sanitizer might be an effective way to slow the spread of disease, but do not rely on this method alone. Instead, use soap as an easy and effective way to stop the spread of germs — and the best part is, it’s completely under your control!

Did you like this article? To read more, check out my other post Best Books to Read While Self-Isolating.

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