Alcohol v Non alcohol hand sanitiser

I have discussed and written about this subject about alcohol vs non-alcohol based hand sanitiser more than I care to mention over the last few months.

It hasn’t helped when government guidelines are continually changing – 60% alcohol, 70% alcohol – I have even seen requests for 80% alcohol.

So this begs the question that why does a virus that is destroyed by soap and water need something as stringent as a 60-80% alcohol-based product?

Some chemistry background

Covid-19 is an enveloped virus, which is very easily killed by various substances, including chlorine (bleach), Quats, Alcohol, Lemon Juice and even salt – (tequila anyone?).

Most surface sanitisers and hand sanitisers use a form of Benzalkonium Chloride, a quaternary ammonium, which is the active ingredient contained in most alcohol-free hand sanitiser products and many surface sanitising products available today.

There are some real benefits to non-alcohol hand sanitisers:

  • They are non-flammable particularly useful in workplaces that may have naked flames such as kitchens, workshops, etc.
  • They tend to be water-based so are much kinder to the skin. In fact, many manufacturers add moisturizing agents such as Vitamin E or Aloe Vera.  So these are great for those suffering from dry skin or eczema.  The low concentrations of Benzalkonium make it relatively non-toxic to adults, children and animals alike.
  • Most non-alcohol products are foaming which means less product is used. It is easier to spread over the skin and leaves some residual efficacy. Once alcohol has evaporated the skin is dry and cracked skin can mean a higher risk of infection.
  • Finally, non-alcohol products are non-damaging to surfaces. They don’t strip paint or varnish or bleach the colour out of carpets.

However, alcohol-based gels are favoured by most health organizations and are therefore perceived as being more credible. (National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine), hence the reason that alcohol-free products have yet to gain a foothold in the health market.

Alcohol has no effect on Norovirus.

As a footnote, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Alcohol hand sanitisers although effective on enveloped viruses such as COVID 19 are useless against Capsid Viruses – such as Norovirus. These viruses have a protein-based shell which alcohol gels cannot breakdown.  However, non-alcohol sanitisers because they can be manipulated to have longer efficacy can have a greater effect on these types of viruses.

Maybe it’s time that governments looked long and hard at sanitisers and their efficacy to make it simpler for everyone to understand.  The debate will probably rage on for some time yet over alcohol vs non-alcohol based sanitiser