Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a solid choice for killing germs, according to the CDC. These products eliminate the widest range of microbes, they're gentler on skin than soap, and when used under supervision they're even safe for kids. As long as a hand sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol, health experts say it will kill most bacteria. Providing the alcohol content is sufficient, cheaper generic products should work as well as name brands.
Alcohol aside, however, various hand sanitizers can smell and feel different on skin. It's important that you select a product that you personally find appealing; experts say if you like a particular sanitizer, you'll be more likely to use it.
Although it's mostly a matter of individual taste, Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer (*Est. $4 for 8 oz.) gets the most consistently high marks from users. In a 2006 Journal of Hospital Infection study, one French hospital tested 14 hand sanitizers to see which one their staffers liked best. The workers ultimately selected Purell, finding it less drying and irritating than other sanitizers (most of which are not as readily available to consumers as Purell). Users posting comments at sites like Epinions.com and Amazon.com also like Purell. Several say it leaves their hands feeling smooth, and they appreciate that it's not heavily perfumed. However, some users do say Purell dries their skin with frequent usage, while others complain about its strong antiseptic smell (Purell contains 65 percent alcohol). Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer with Aloe (*Est. $4 for 8 oz.) is virtually the same as the original formula except for the inclusion of aloe. Both formulas have the same amount of alcohol and perform similarly in reviews. Overall, Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer earns an average of 4.5 stars (out of 5) from 15 users at Epinions.com, and 4 stars (out of 5) from a handful of users at Amazon.com.
Price can be a consideration for some consumers, and it's important to note that most drugstores and discount chains offer their own brands of hand sanitizer, and most contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Walgreens Generic Hand Sanitizer (*Est. $3 for 8 oz.) and CVS Generic Hand Sanitizer (*Est. $3 for 8 oz.) both get good reviews.
Other brand-name hand sanitizers also get good reviews -- they're just not recommended quite as often as Purell. One noteworthy product, Germ-X (*Est. $3 for 8 oz.) has a similar ingredient list to Purell, with 63 percent alcohol. Germ-X receives several rave reviews at Epinions.com. Users like that it's inexpensive, widely available in different sizes and smells good.
Germ-X Soft Wipes (*Est. $11 for 100 wipes) are another convenient option. They offer the same protection and peace of mind as gel sanitizers, but they come in individually wrapped towelettes that can easily be toted around in a pocket, purse or lunch box. Users at Amazon.com say they like the ease of use the Soft Wipes provide and say that they can be used on other surfaces as well. There are only a handful of reviews at Amazon.com, and we didn't find reviews for them anywhere else. Germ-X Soft Wipes are also sold in a canister (*Est. $4 for 42 wipes), but they don't contain any alcohol. The canister wipes rely, instead, on BAC – an ingredient that isn't as effective as alcohol, according to numerous studies.
Natural hand sanitizers employ essential plant oils, such as thyme or lavender, to kill germs. While some studies have shown these compounds do kill germs, few studies have tested plant oils specifically as hand sanitizers. Additionally, because most natural hand sanitizers don't contain alcohol -- a proven germ-killer -- public health officials typically don't endorse them. Still, some products do combine plant oils with effective levels of germ-killing alcohol.
Unlike other natural products, EO's Hand Sanitizing Gel (*Est. $8 for 8 oz.) contains 62 percent alcohol, but it's also made without potentially irritating artificial perfumes and dyes. Two watchdog websites -- CosmeticsDatabase.com and GoodGuide.com -- both list EO as one of the safest hand sanitizers consumers can buy, with ingredients that are less likely to be harmful than other hand sanitizers. For example, EO contains no artificial fragrance (a common feature of conventional hand sanitizers), which research has shown may aggravate allergies. EO includes 62 percent organic alcohol, organic jojoba oil as a moisturizer, and organic lemon and lavender essential oils for fragrance. EO also offers an unscented version.
Another standout, Burt's Bees Aloe & Witch Hazel Hand Sanitizer (*Est. $5 for 2 oz.) contains 62 percent organic alcohol and other natural ingredients including aloe and witch hazel. It also gets a higher rating than any other hand sanitizer at GoodGuide.com. Editors say that it doesn't contain any ingredients that raise health concerns. Burt's Bees meets the required alcohol level for an effective sanitizer, but fewer professionals and users have reviewed this product than the EO sanitizer. Still, several users on Drugstore.com say they like that it is an all-natural product and praise its gentle, lightweight feel as well its pleasant smell.