Hand hygiene, soap and sanitiser gel: what you need to know

From what makes medical-grade hand gel to making your own - and if you need ‘germ protection’ soap - we reveal what really matters in the fight to keep your hands clean and protect against COVID-19.

We’re all now hyper aware of hand hygiene due to the coronavirus pandemic, but confusion remains about exactly what works best and why. We know that across the UK (and beyond), alcohol-based hand gel is like gold dust at the moment. It’s important to remember that hand sanitiser isn’t the be all and end all of hygiene (if you’re one of the millions of Brits now mostly staying at home anyway, hand washing is the best option). But does it matter what kind of hand gel or soap you buy? And what can you do if you’re struggling to get hold of these products? We spoke to a microbiologist about the science of hand sanitiser and soap, the key ingredients to look for and whether alternatives such as hand wipes work.

Why soap and alcohol gel work against coronavirus It’s all about the type of virus we’re dealing with. COVID-19 is an enveloped virus. This means that the RNA (nucleic acid – the viral genetic material) is coated in a lipid (fatty) layer. Soap is able to dissolve this lipid layer, causing the virus to fall apart and stopping it from binding to our cells. Alcohol-based hand sanitisers work in a similar way, inactivating the virus by breaking down the lipid layer.

Do alcohol-free hand sanitisers work?

Alcohol-free hand sanitisers are usually foams, such as Reserve Nature Sanitiser They can be gentler on the skin but the scientific evidence varies more for alcohol-free products than it does for sanitisers containing alcohol.

Alcohol-free hand sanitisers commonly contain ingredients such as benzalkonium chloride or chlorhexidine digluconate. A recent study in the Journal of Hospital Medicine (March 2020) found these ingredients less effective in deactivating viruses similar to COVID-19 (although the study looked at surfaces not hands). Dr Freestone explained to us that these ingredients tend to work better against bacteria and viruses such as norovirus, reiterating it is ‘alcohol, detergents, hydrogen peroxide, extremes of pH and bleach that inactivate COVID-19’.

As Dr Mark Webber, research leader at the Quadram Institute, explains: ‘The reason that alcohol-based sanitisers are prioritised in official World Health Organization and NHS guidance is that the evidence for it is much clearer (as with soap and water). Other chemical compounds have varying efficacy, but it’s harder to be sure.’