Hand sanitizer is a bit like chapstick or lip gloss. If you’re a germaphobe like me, you probably have a mini bottle tucked in a pocket of every purse, gym bag, and backpack in your closet. It’s always there when you need it, but if it’s been there forever…is it still good?
The next time you reach for that little bottle, turn it over and check the date imprinted on the packaging. Yep, most hand sanitizers 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 deserves to be tossed, 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 purse, it could have easily rubbed right off. If that’s the case, she says you can probably assume your hand sanitizer has a shelf-life of at least one year. (FWIW: Alexis says the shelf-life could be more like three years, so it’s not a perfect science.)
Is it safe to use expired hand sanitizer?
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 sanitizer if you’re in a pinch. “You can consider using 70 percent 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 moisturizer or aloe vera gel after would help to mitigate that.”
Don’t have any rubbing alcohol on hand? Vodka, and any distilled alcohol would have the same germ-killing effect, according to Willard.
Is hand sanitizer better than just washing your hands?
Your go-to should be washing your hands with soap and water and scrubbing at least 20 seconds (time yourself by singing the birthday song twice) whenever possible, per 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 sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others,” the CDC says. “Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly.”
If you opt for sanitizing, 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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