Chances are you might have a bottle of hand sanitiser stashed away in the bottom of your handbag, gym bag or holdall - just incase you ever need it. But, if it's been there for a while, does it still work?
The next time you reach for that little bottle, turn it over and check the date imprinted on the packaging. Most hand sanitisers have an expiration date and you probably should pay attention to it. "The active ingredients are only guaranteed effective until the expiration date," says Dr. Andrew Alexis, MD, chair of Mount Sinai's department of dermatology.
There are "no clear visual signs of expiration so checking the label is the only reliable way" to tell if that bottle needs to be thrown out, he says.
The catch: not every bottle may come imprinted with an expiration date, according to Suzanne Willard, PhD, a clinical professor and associate dean for global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing. If it's been rolling around in the bottom of your bag, it could have easily rubbed right off. If that's the case, Willard says you can probably assume your hand sanitiser has a shelf-life of at least one year. (In contrast, Alexis suggests the shelf-life could be more like three years, so it's not a perfect science.)
Is it safe to use expired hand sanitiser?
You can still use it, according to Willard. "Something's better than nothing," she says. "Some friction and a liquid will help get rid of some of the germs."
Experts also say you can whip up your own hand sanitiser if you can't get hold of any. "You can consider using 70% isopropyl alcohol—ie. rubbing alcohol—as skin disinfectant, applying a small amount of it to cotton wool and using that to wipe the hands," says Alexis. "The downside is dryness of the skin, so applying a hand moisturiser or aloe vera gel after would help to mitigate that."
Is hand sanitiser better than just washing your hands?
Your go-to should be washing your hands with soap and water and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds (time yourself by singing Happy Birthday twice) whenever possible, recommends the CDC. "Hand washing reduces the amounts of all types of germs and chemicals on hands. But if soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others," the CDC says. "Alcohol-based hand sanitisers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly."
If you opt for sanitising, be sure to cover all surfaces of both hands and leave it on to dry: don't wipe it off while it's wet. Still: "Hand washing with soap and water is still the best option," says Alexis.
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