Study Finds Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizer Effective Against COVID-19

Woman using hand sanitizer.

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • With supplies of alcohol-based hand sanitizers hard to find in stores, a recent study finds alcohol is not necessary to disinfect surfaces.
  • Researchers found alcohol-free hand sanitizers work just as well at disinfecting against COVID-19 as alcohol-based products.
  • This comes as good news to people with sensitive skin.

In the midst of what many doctors fear is another wave of infection, scientists are finding new ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A recent study conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University found alcohol-free hand sanitizers work just as well at disinfecting against COVID-19 as alcohol-based products.

The study is in contradiction to other metrics, where scientists concluded alcohol-free sanitizers did not have the same efficacy as compounds using alcohol. This time, the scientists examined samples of COVID-19 using benzalkonium chloride (BAC), commonly found in alcohol-free hand sanitizers, and several other quaternary ammonium compounds. The results? The compounds without alcohol eliminated the virus in most of the test cases within 15 seconds. This November study was published in the Journal of Hospital Infection.

“We have shown that non-alcohol hand sanitizers work to kill the pandemic coronavirus in 15 seconds or less, thus very similar in nature to the kill rate for alcohol hand sanitizers,” study co-author Bradford Berges, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young University, tells Verywell. “Since non-alcohol sanitizers are less problematic for sensitive or dry skin, our findings provide another way for those that work in hospitals, or those in the community, to prevent virus transmission.”

The demand for alcohol-based sanitizers has soared, with some locales running out of inventory entirely. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged manufacturers to make more sanitizers. However, some were recalled because they contained methanol or 1-propanal.

There are several products on the market that feature benzalkonium chloride, including both brand-name and generic options. It's important to note that while the compound may be easier on those with sensitive skin, other studies show you should still exercise caution and not overdo it. BAC is known as an irritant and in some cases considered an allergen.

An allergen causes an immune system response in the body and can cause a reaction ranging from itchy skin to anaphylactic shock. An irritant on the other hand is typically temporary and usually resolves itself on its own.

How Did Researchers Conduct the Study?

In their study, the researchers put COVID-19 samples in test tubes and mixed in different compounds, including:

  • 0.2% benzalkonium chloride solution
  • Three commercially available disinfectants containing quaternary ammonium compounds
  • Soil loads
  • Hard water

They found that the compounds actually worked in a short enough time frame to have practical use as a real-world disinfectant.

Switching to alcohol-free hand sanitizers should be a relief to people who find the ingredient to be too harsh for their skin. Studies show that alcohol acts as a carrier of other ingredients to the skin, making those with sensitive skin doubly susceptible to irritation.

Because the solutions were able to kill the virus within 15 seconds of application, it remains best practice to allow the solution to work for a few moments.

In addition to hand sanitizer, alcohol-free products for cleaning and sanitizing surfaces are available. The researchers hope that their findings might expand the official recommendations made for hand sanitizers, or at least reassure the public that if they are using a product that isn’t alcohol-based, it’s likely still effective.

What This Means For You

If alcohol-based hand sanitizers are irritating your skin, an alcohol-free alternative might still protect you from COVID-19.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jing, JLJ, Pei Yi T, et al. Hand sanitizers: a review on formulation aspects, adverse effects, and regulations. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2020;17(3326). doi:10.3390/ijerph17093326

  2. Ogilvie BH, Solis-Leal A, Lopez JB, Poole BD, Robison RA, Berges BK. Alcohol-free hand sanitizer and other quaternary ammonium disinfectants quickly and effectively inactivate SARS-CoV-2Journal of Hospital Infection: S0195670120305478.

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA takes action to protect public health; increase supply of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA updates on hand sanitizers consumers should not use.

  5. Merchel Piovesan Pereira B, Tagkopoulos I. Benzalkonium Chlorides: Uses, Regulatory Status, and Microbial ResistanceAppl Environ Microbiol. 2019;85(13):e00377-19. Published 2019 Jun 17. doi:10.1128/AEM.00377-19

  6. American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Allergen definition.

  7. Lachenmeier DW. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavityJ Occup Med Toxicol. 2008;3:26. Published 2008 Nov 13. doi:10.1186/1745-6673-3-26

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.