Dr. Greene’s Answer:
The distinction is not clear to many consumers, but the products work quite differently and have different results.
In alcohol-based hand sanitizers (like Purell), the active ingredient is ethyl alcohol. Alcohol is a natural antiseptic that has been used in the medical field for over 100 years because it kills germs in seconds, without water, and evaporates quickly, leaving no residue on the skin. It physically destroys the germs. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill harmful bacterial, such as streptococcus, salmonella, staphylococcus, E. coli and shigella. These products do not claim to kill viruses.
The use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers has been shown to reduce illness and absence rates in places where germs are commonly spread, such as in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of alcohol or alcohol based products in hospitals, home, work, and schools to stop the spread of germs. For more information about the CDC’s recommendations, please visit their Web site: www.cdc.gov.
The antibacterial products that are not alcohol-based usually require water to work. They also contain different synthetic chemical active ingredients, such as triclosan and quaternary ammonium, to kill germs.
Recent studies of antibacterial soaps have not demonstrated that they were any more effective than plain soap at preventing infection or reducing bacterial levels on the hands. Furthermore, some studies have shown increased risk of resistance to antibiotics with the use of antibacterial soaps (Aiello AE, et al., Consumer antibacterial soaps: effective or just risky?, Clin Infect Dis. 2007 Sep 1;45 Suppl 2:S137-47).
Last reviewed: May 13, 2008