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Hand sanitizers compared

We already know alcohol-based sanitizers give us the upper hand in fighting the H1N1 flu bug.

But it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices. Should you spring for the expensive designer goo with the fancy fragrance? Or will a budget-friendly gel from the dollar store work just as well?

The Forum features department tested a variety of over-the-counter sanitizers to check out everything from alcohol content (the FDA recommends that sanitizers contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective at killing microbes) to scent, moisturizing qualities and price.

What we found: The best sanitizers weren't always the most expensive. All products - which were purchased at Walgreens, Target, Walmart or Bath & Body Works - met the 60 percent mark for alcohol content. And the newer concoctions often contain emollients to offset the drying effects of the alcohol.

Other good news: Studies suggest sanitizers more effectively eliminate membrane-surrounded flu viruses than cold-causing viruses such as the rhinovirus, according to Kathryn Wise, microbiology professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead. The alcohol in these products damages the microbe's cell membranes, weakening the microbe in the process, Wise adds.

At the same time, experts caution against relying solely on sanitizers for your swine-flu defense. "It's more important to be able to wash your hands appropriately with soap and water," says Dr. Augusto Alonto, infectious diseases specialist at MeritCare in Fargo. "By lathering with soap, you're actually mechanically removing the bacteria from your hands."

To get the best results from hand sanitizers:

Dr. Augusto Alonto, infectious diseases specialist at MeritCare, and Kathryn Wise, microbiology professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, offer these tips to use sanitizer with optimum effectiveness:

  • Avoid online recipes for make-your-own sanitizers, which can contain alcohol levels far below the recommended 60 percent mark.
  • Sanitizer should be used in conjunction with frequent, proper hand-washing whenever possible.
  • Alcohol-based hand gels aren’t as effective at cutting through organic matter – dirt, blood, other bodily fluids – so sanitizer will work best on hands that aren’t visibly soiled.
  • Studies show certain areas of the office, such as phone receivers, computer keyboards and desk areas, can contain more micro-organisms than bathrooms, according to the New York Times. Office workers should supplement regular, thorough hand-washing with alcohol-based hand gels.
  • Avoid sanitizers that are so drying they’ll cause hands to crack. Breaks in the skin create a whole new portal of entry for microbes. Instead, look for formulations fortified with emollients – tocopheryl (vitamin E), aloe vera, jojoba oil – to keep hands moisturized.
  • Although some people fear heavy hand-sanitizer use will build up pathogen resistance and create “super bugs,” Alonto says there’s “no real data” to support that.
  • For optimum results, vigorously rub all sides of your hands with enough gel to get them wet, and rub them together until they’re dry. If your hands are dry after 10 to 15 seconds, you haven’t used enough, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Good hand hygiene is just one aspect of flu prevention. It’s important to also keep hands away from mouth, eyes and nose; frequently wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time; stay home if sick; cover mouth with your upper arm or a tissue if you cough or sneeze. Avoid coughing into hands.

Walgreens Instant Hand Sanitizer

  • Cost: $2.99 for 8-ounce bottle.
  • Alcohol content: 62 percent ethyl alcohol.
  • Scent: Like alcohol with a hint of generic “clean.”
  • Consistency: It’s like gummi water, a gel that slides like water while still holding some sort of form. The good thing about this, it’s easy to spread across hands and is absorbed in seconds.
  • Bottom line: This is the stuff a stereotypical school nurse would love. It’s effective. It feels clean. It smells strong enough so you know it’s working. And it isn’t going to be perceived as fun – at all.

- Robert Morast

EO Hand Sanitizer (Organic Lemon and Unscented)

  • Cost: $3.99 for 2-ounce bottle.
  • Alcohol content: 62 percent organic ethanol (non-GMO).
  • Scent: Both have a pungent ethanol odor initially. Once rubbed in, the Organic Lemon leaves a pleasant, lingering citrus fragrance. Unscented is truly scent-free.
  • Consistency: Not too runny. Rubs in nicely. Jojoba oil moisturizes hands like a lotion.
  • Bottom line: High-quality product, but probably not worth the price unless seeking an organic option.

- Sherri Richards

Up & Up Hand Sanitizer Gel

  • Cost: 97 cents for 2-ounce bottle.
  • Alcohol content: 62 percent ethyl alcohol.
  • Scent: If you’re into alcohol, this smells like you could drink it – at least right away. The strong alcohol aroma leaves soon, but just to be safe don’t apply near your nose.
  • Consistency: It’s runnier than some of the sanitizers, coming out with a greater liquid base. For instance, if you wipe the excess gel on your pants, your leg feels wet.
  • Bottom line: This Target brand of hand sanitizer should kill germs. It won’t do much else, and – despite presence of vitamin E – kind of dries out your skin.

- Robert Morast

Bath & Body Works Anti-bacterial Deep Cleansing Hand Gels

  • Cost: $1.50 for 1 ounce or $5 for five 1-ounce bottles.
  • Alcohol content: 60 percent isopropyl alcohol.


  • Coconut Lime Verbena: Potent but not as sickeningly sweet as some other Bath & Body Works sanitizers. Coconut top notes give it a pleasantly beachy, suntan-lotion bouquet.
  • Cucumber Melon: The melon fragrance is more detectable right out of the bottle, but fades to just a hint after rubbed into the hands.
  • Sweet Pea: Potent but pleasing floral scent, which lasts several hours after application.
  • Midnight Pomegranate: So overpoweringly sweet and fruity that others may complain about the scent (as one of my co-workers did). Cloying fragrance lasts several hours after application.
  • Sea Island Cotton: A strong, agreeable fragrance, reminiscent of laundry detergent and aftershave lotion.
  • Warm Vanilla Sugar: This hand gel smells like baking day at grandma’s house. (That is, if grandma happens to douse all her cakes with a dash of vodka.)
  • Nectarine Mint: Fruity and overwhelmingly sweet, with an unexpected cool bite.
  • Japanese Cherry Blossom: A slightly sharp cherry scent with intense, baby-shampoo undercurrents.
  • White Citrus: The fresh, clean smells of citrus were a welcome break after so many sugary florals, but the fragrance is still overwhelming.

  • Consistency: Thin gel. Tingled a bit when rubbed into hands. Absorbs quickly and completely, leaving no residue.
  • Bottom line: These sanitizers cost more, probably due to the posh fragrances and packaging. Some of the scents are lovely (Sea Island Cotton); others way too heavy-handed and lingering (Midnight Pomegranate).

All gels contain moisturizing vitamin E and aloe.

- Tammy Swift, John Lamb

Bath & Body Works Anti-bacterial Deep-Cleansing Hand Gels (Holiday Traditions line)

  • Cost: $1.50 for 1 ounce or $5 for five 1-ounce bottles.
  • Alcohol content: 60 percent isopropryl alcohol.


  • Winter Candy Apple: I have no idea how they get winter, candy or apple out of this as the scent is reminiscent of some antiseptic Lipsmacker spill. Seriously powerful sweet smell.
  • Vanilla Bean Noel: Seriously, are these developed in Santa’s cosmetics lab? At first there is no discernable scent, but once it’s out of the bottle, a cloying vanilla aroma overpowers.

  • Consistency: Fairly viscous, it rubs in easily but leaves a slightly slick feeling.
  • Bottom line: While they cover the hands easily, the fragrances are too intense to enjoy. Do yourself a favor and just wash your hands, then dry them over an open fire.

- John Lamb

Germ-X Blastin' Blueberry Germ Blaster Hand Sanitizer

  • Cost: 97 cents for 2.5-ounce bottle.
  • Alcohol content: 62 percent ethyl alcohol.
  • Scent: Blueberry scent that is long-lasting. In fact, the scent was still noticeable in the morning after applying it before bed.
  • Consistency: Slightly runny gel that absorbs into hands quickly. No sticky feeling before or after it dries.
  • Bottom line: A fruity-smelling option with enough alcohol to kill germs. Can be somewhat drying to skin after several applications because it lacks moisturizers.

- Erin Crommett

Smart & Silky Kids Foaming Hand Sanitizer

  • Cost: $4.49 for 8.5-ounce bottle.
  • Alcohol content: None; uses benzalkonium chloride – a surfactant that damages the cell membranes and proteins of pathogens – as its antimicrobial.
  • Scent: True to its label, this sanitizer has no noticeable scent.
  • Consistency: A slightly runny foam that is just a bit sticky until it dries.
  • Bottom line: A great nonalcohol option for families with small children. The moisturizer in this brand leaves hands significantly softer and its fragrance-free formula means no overwhelming odors.

- Erin Crommett

Germ-X Original Hand Sanitizer

  • Cost: $2.97 for 8 ounces.
  • Alcohol content: 63 percent ethyl alcohol.
  • Scent: Watermelon, with slight alcohol undertones. A sharper, more alcohol-edged bouquet developed after it’s rubbed into skin.
  • Consistency: Slightly runny gel that absorbs quickly; leaves a mild, melon-tinged scent but no residue.  Hands feel smooth, not dry, afterward.
  • Bottom line: A budget-friendly option with enough alcohol for microbe-killing power. It also contains moisturizing vitamin E, which seemed to balance out the drying effects of the alcohol.

- Tammy Swift

Target-brand Hand Sanitizer with Aloe and Vitamin E

  • Cost: $1.02 for 2-ounce bottle.
  • Alcohol content: 62 percent ethyl alcohol.
  • Scent: Has a nice floral hint behind the medicalish overtones.
  • Consistency: Thicker, more gelatinous consistency than the Purell, but easily thin enough to coat the hands.
  • Bottom line: A store-brand sanitizer with a relatively nice scent. It sports some aloe and vitamin E to boot.

- J. Shane Mercer

Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer

  • Cost: $1.77 for 2-ounce bottle.
  • Alcohol content: 65 percent ethyl alcohol.
  • Scent: A little something lemony along with the alcohol.
  • Consistency: Watery gel that thins as it’s worked in.
  • Bottom line: The basic, stand-by product from a familiar name.

- J. Shane Mercer

EO Organic Lavender Sanitizing Hand Wipe

  • Cost: 80 cents for one individually packaged wipe.
  • Alcohol content: 62 percent organic alcohol.
  • Scent: A strong lavender aroma with alcohol undertones. Leaves a fresh, natural scent afterward.
  • Consistency: Sanitizer from moist wipe dries immediately; no stickiness or residue.
  • Bottom line: A convenient, if spendy, way to clean hands. Since the action of wiping can help remove some microbes, some experts suggest wipes with the same ingredients as hand gels do a better job than gels alone. These wipes also contain organic chamomile and calendula flower extracts, which have some soothing and anti-microbial properties.

- Tammy Swift