How Do Hand Sanitizer and Rubbing Alcohol Kill COVID-19?

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Heather says,

Dear Home-Ec 101,

How does hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol kill COVID-19 and if they do such a good job, why do we need to spend so long washing our hands all the time?

It’s been eight months of this coronavirus nonsense, my hands are raw, I’m tired of this. I just want things back to normal.


Cranky in Crater Lake

You and me both.

However, that’s not going to happen for a while, so we suck it up, and we wash our hands. Try to get in the habit of applying lotion right after you dry your hands. As the weather cools down and the air dries out, your hands are going to get more raw. You don’t want your skin to crack. That is miserable.

Honestly, right now, my favorite lotion is Neutrogena Hydro Boost. I really like it as I hate lotions that feel greasy or slimy and this one absorbs fairly quickly, with none of that nonsense. I keep a tube in each car—I don’t carry a purse—and a bottle near the sink. I have a giant bottle of hand sanitizer in the car, so our procedure is to: sanitize, let it dry, moisturize.

As soon as we get home, it’s a full hand wash, dry, moisturize.

Now, to your main question. Yesterday we talked about whether or not clothing needed to be washed on hot to be safe. In that explanation, I mentioned the structure of the virus itself.

You hear a lot about the protein spikes. The protein spikes are what scientists are focusing on to build a vaccine. What we’re talking about here is the fatty coating or the lipid layer. This coating protects the RNA, basically the brains of the beast. Hand sanitizer and detergents break down that fatty layer exposing that RNA killing the virus. Yay!

You also mentioned rubbing alcohol in your question. The important thing to remember is that the rubbing alcohol or isopropanol has to be of high enough percentage to be effective 60%. If it isn’t, it won’t do any good, and you’ll think you’re safe, which can lead to unsafe behaviors, like touching your face. (Don’t touch your face)

Now, you ask why washing your hands is important if hand sanitizer works?

Dirt and grease protect the virus from the hand sanitizer. If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy there is enough dirt and/or grease to prevent the hand sanitizer from being effective. Viruses are extremely tiny. They can hide in tiny cracks and crevices, droplets of grease make comfortable little homes for them and the alcohol in your hand sanitizer cannot penetrate to destroy them. However, if you then wipe your nose with the back of your grimy hand, you deposit that grease right inside your nostril, welcome to Sick-Ville.

Hand washing is best. It’s not just that the soap breaks down that lipid layer and kills the virus. The physical motion washes the dirt and oil off of our hands, sending the viral particles down the drain and out of our lives, along with influenza, streptococcus, and e. Coli, and all of the other fun things we tend to pick up.

Great question. You can learn more about using isopropanol safely in the Home-Ec101 guide to household chemicals.

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