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Thinkstockphotos 86509844 Nurse Using Hand Sanitizer

Does Alcohol Kill Germs?

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In 2020, U.S. sales of alcohol-based hand sanitizer jumped almost sevenfold compared to 2019.

That’s not surprising to anyone who shopped for the disinfecting gel during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trying to find a bottle of hand sanitizer at supermarkets and pharmacies was like trying to find a parking space at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

So great was the demand that distilleries around the country began churning out the disinfectant. It made perfect sense. The common ingredient in bourbon and hand sanitizer? Alcohol.

Alcohol kills germs. Microbes such as bacteria, viruses and fungi are susceptible to alcohol's germicidal effects. This includes COVID-19-causing virus and influenza viruses.

That said, two points must be made here. Don’t drink hand sanitizer. And, taking a shot of bourbon will not kill germs inside the body.

Germ Death

Most hand sanitizers contain isopropyl, also known as rubbing alcohol, or ethanol. Their disinfecting qualities are well proven. A chemical process known as denaturation kills the germs.

This process happens when alcohol molecules break down the proteins that help make up the structure of germs. As the proteins disintegrate, the cells fail to function properly. They lose their membrane protection, dehydrate and quickly die.

Alcohol has been used as an antiseptic since at least the late 1800s. The popular hand sanitizers on the market today surfaced in the 1980s and became a hot commodity when the pandemic hit.

The Centers for Disease Control says washing your hands with plain soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the most effective way to kill germs, prevent the spread of infections and reduce the risk of getting sick. However, since most of us don’t carry around a bar of soap, a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol can also help curb illnesses, including COVID-19.

Many household cleaning products and disinfectant wipes are alcohol based. These products typically have 70% alcohol. The CDC recommends using these disinfectants to clean regularly touched items, like light switches, handles and faucets. And, don’t forget cell phones, which experts say can carry more germs than a toilet seat.

Don’t Drink It!

While it’s clear that alcohol kills germs on hands and surfaces, swallowing a disinfectant or knocking back a couple of gin and tonics won’t kill germs inside the body. That is true even though ethyl alcohol used in hand gel is the same type found in drinkable spirits. You can’t drink your way past a virus because the digestive process immediately breaks down the ethanol molecules, making it difficult for them to kill microbes within the body.

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5 Steps for Handwashing

Washing your hands not only prevents you from getting sick, but it also reduces the risk of infecting others. You can’t avoid germs, but you can reduce the chance of passing them to others by washing your hands often.