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Difference between alcohol and alcohol-free hand sanitisers

Difference between alcohol and alcohol-free hand sanitisers

Apart from the obvious answer (one contains alcohol, one does not) there are actually a lot of differences between alcohol and non-alcohol hand sanitisers

Difference between alcohol and alcohol-free hand sanitisers

We all know how important hand washing is when it comes to hygiene and infection control, but when hand sanitiser entered the consumer marketplace in the early 2000s the way in which we clean was changed forever.

Following an update in guidance by the CDC back in 2002, and further published by other healthcare bodies, the use of hand sanitiser and alcohol-based rubs was encouraged within health care settings as both a time saving exercise and method to reduce and control infection rates and outbreaks.

In this update they mention the need to evaluate hand hygiene products and consider efficacy against various pathogens as well as acceptability by users, making note of characteristics that can affect opinion such as smell, consistency, colour and effect of dryness on the hands. 

We’ve now come a long way since these early days of hand sanitiser. Supermarket shelves are packed with multiple brands offering a huge range of choice from fragrance, to packaging and even ingredients such as alcohol or non-alcohol based, but how do you choose the right product and how do you know which is the most effective? Let’s start with looking at the base ingredient which is either alcohol (commonly either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol) or no-alcohol (commonly an antiseptic or disinfectant).

What is the difference between alcohol and alcohol-free hand sanitisers?

Apart from the obvious answer (one contains alcohol, one does not) there are actually a lot of differences between alcohol and non-alcohol hand sanitisers, primarily how they function in regard to bactericidal and viricidal activity and the effect they have on the skin.

Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitisers

Demand for alcohol-based hand sanitisers grew significantly in early 2020 when the first cases of COVID-19 began to emerge in the UK and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic. The product was sold out everywhere, google searches for hand sanitiser had rocketed and those on the frontline were left with very little in terms of hand hygiene. The World Health Organisation were quick to put together guidance on the use of alcohol-based hand rubs and even designed a formulation for companies to make this themselves during worldwide shortages of the product. 

Alcohol kills pathogens through a process called denaturisation. This process breaks down proteins present in germ cells, changing their shape and rendering them useless. Once this process has taken place, they simply stop functioning.  

Alcohol hand sanitiser (with at least 60% alcohol concentration) has remained popular as it is cheap to produce and proven to inactivate a wide array of harmful organisms on the hands. Products to look for should be certified at least to BS EN 1500 which shows the hand rub is able to reduce the release of transient microbial flora on the hands. Other certifications to look for are for proven bactericidal activity – BS EN 1276, virucidal activity – BS EN 14476 and yeasticidal activirty, BS EN 13624.

Although alcohol hand sanitiser is effective at inactivating a wide range of bacteria, viruses and spores, it does come with some disadvantages, primarily the effect it has on the skin. Overuse of alcohol-based hand gels alters the balance of oils in the skin and can lead to dryness, irritation and in some cases, cracked and sore skin. Once this has happened, applying alcohol can sting and be quite uncomfortable which is not ideal if you work in an environment where you need to apply it regularly.  On top of this, alcohol based hand sanitsers are highly flammable so there needs to be consideration as to how they are stored and who has access to them.

Non-alcohol hand sanitisers

Despite the common misconception, alcohol-free hand sanitisers are just as reliable at killing pathogens on the hands as alcohol. Instead of relying on a chemical such as ethanol to break down microbes, they use antiseptics and disinfectants like benzalkonium chloride or Didecyldimethylammonium chloride.

Didecyldimethylammonium chloride (also known as DDAC) possesses excellent biocidal properties. It works by disrupting intermolecular interactions and breaks apart lipid layers. For example, bacterial membranes are made up of different phospholipids (components of the plasma membrane), which is the outermost layer of cells. These lipids are essential cell components that play a variety of roles in how a cell functions and survives. Once the lipid layer is broken apart it disrupts the entire cell rendering bacteria and viruses useless.  

This entire process is completed without the requirement for alcohol, and in some products, such as our alcohol-free hand sanitiser, it can outperform other traditional alcohol-based hand sanitisers on the market. I.e, some alcohol free hand sanitisers meet the requirement of just BS EN 1276 for bactericidal activity with a 99.9% kill rate, whereas our alcohol-free alternative kills 99.99% of bacteria, enveloped viruses and spores and passes BS EN 1500, BS EN 1276 BS EN 14476, BS EN 13727 and BS EN 13624.

One of the biggest differences between alcohol based and alcohol-free hand sanitisers is that with the alcohol free option there is no degreasing effect on the skin. This means skin does not become dry, irritated, cracked or sore making them the ideal choice for people who need to use them frequently on a daily basis. Additional to this, most alcohol-free hand sanitisers, such as our own, are also free from strong fragrances and dyes further reducing any exposure to skin irritants.

We offer a full bespoke service to create your very own branded private label hand sanitiser. For more information on this service, please click here .