We've all been washing our hands and slathering on more hand sanitizer than we ever thought possible. And while we should absolutely still continue practicing good hand hygiene, we also need to take care of our dry and irritated hands.
Thankfully, there are plenty of hand creams out there to soothe sore skin. But with all of the talk of obsessive washing, it got our editors wondering: could using hand cream immediately after using hand sanitizer alter the gel's ability to effectively kill bacteria? It's a question we also saw come up while scrolling on Instagram, so of course, we decided investigate. To do that, we spoke to top dermatologists and cosmetic chemists to figure out whether using hand cream immediately after sanitizer will stop it from working.
The CDC warns that, "when hands are heavily soiled or greasy, hand sanitizer may not work well."
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer works by quickly (and easily) reducing the number of germs on the skin, but it doesn't always kill all of them. The reason sanitizer is not as effective as hand washing is because it doesn't physically remove the germs from your hands. Also, similar to sunscreen, people rarely use enough hand gel, meaning that the gel can sometimes get wiped away accidentally before it's taken full effect, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Further to this point, the CDC warns that, "when hands are heavily soiled or greasy, hand sanitizers may not work well." So, it makes sense that a big dollop of hand cream immediately after using sanitizer might disrupt its effectiveness.
"While there is no scientific evidence I know of, it actually makes sense," said cosmetic chemist Ginger King. In the United States, triclosan (a powerful antibacterial and antifungal agent) was banned in the country, meaning for sanitizer to be effective, it has to contain a minimum of 60 percent alcohol. "Alcohol kills bacteria and viruses, but if there is another medium they can grab onto — such as a hand cream — the bacteria may be able to survive."
This means that theoretically, hand cream can disrupt hand gel, but many of the experts believe that it's highly unlikely. "[Used correctly], alcohol-based hand sanitizers pretty much work on contact, so you are not likely to negate its activity by quickly applying a hand cream," said cosmetic chemist Ni'kita Wilson. The dermatologists we spoke to stressed the "used correctly" instruction. "It's very important to let hand sanitizer completely dry before applying hand cream to ensure it works effectively and the efficacy isn't compromised, however you don't need to wait as long as 10 minutes," said Susan Mayou, consultant dermatologist at Cadogan Clinic in London.
New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, added: "For [hand gel] to be effective, you need to apply the correct amount [the bottle should tell you the correct amount]. You also need to apply to clean hands because oil, grease, dirt, or even moisturizers can block their effectiveness." If you're doing those steps correctly, Zeichner says, you're not likely to fully stop the sanitizer from working as the sanitizer dries and takes effect within seconds of application.
To sum it up, hand creams probably don't negate the results of hand sanitizer completely, provided you've applied enough of the product and that you've "rubbed the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry," as the CDC recommends. Most of us are probably already applying it correctly: squeeze out a dollop, rub it in well — maybe do a little air wave motion to make sure it's completely soaked into the skin — and then you apply hand cream. So don't go and cut out creams altogether (they're important in preventing severe dryness), but do wait until your hands are totally dry from the hand gel — which may be a minute or two — before applying your favorite cream.