Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizers and Antibacterial Soaps


Are alcohol-based hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps the same?

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:

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).

More Information:

Hand Washing – Good Germs – Super Germs
Regular Soap and How it Works
Soap and Water or Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizers
What Hand Hygiene Product Should I Use?

Last medical review on: May 13, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
Get Dr. Greene's Wellness RecommendationsSignup now to get Dr. Greene's healing philosophy, insight into medical trends, parenting tips, seasonal highlights, and health news delivered to your inbox every month.
Add your comment

Recent Comments

I have salmonella, got it from.a patient of mine before I dropped her, I’ve been washing my hands alot n plus using alcohol-based sanitizer n my hands are raw now, what can I do to moisturize my hands n won’t make me sick again,

Per @DrGreene, “It’s generally considered safe and effective against some bacteria, but not others.”


I started using hydrogen peroxide as a house cleaner. Do I need to concern myself with its vapors or burning my skin?

Per @DrGreene, “It’s generally considered safe and effective against some bacteria, but not others.”