Washing your hands is your most effective defense against germs, but using hand sanitizer as a secondary step can help too if the product hasn't expired. Understanding exactly what that expiration date means can give you the upper hand in the fight against bacteria and viruses.
Does Hand Sanitizer Ever Go Bad?
While hand sanitizer doesn't "go bad" in the traditional sense, it does expire and lose its potency over time. That's because the active ingredient in most versions of this product, the one responsible for killing a variety of bacteria and viruses, is alcohol, which evaporates when it's exposed to air. Unfortunately, while hand sanitizer containers do a good job of preventing the product from leaking out, they're not airtight. This is what allows the alcohol content to dissipate slowly and render the sanitizer less and less effective as time goes on.
Understanding the Hand Sanitizer Expiration Date
Take a close look at the label on a bottle of hand sanitizer, and you'll find an expiration date. This date indicates how long you can expect the bottle in your hand to remain stable and effective at killing germs when used as recommended.
Beyond the basic expiration date, it's important to understand these related facts.
- Shelf life - According to CleanLink.com, the industry standard for expiration dates on this type of product gives it a shelf life of two to three years. That means the sanitizer will be most effective if used during this time period.
- Alcohol content drop - The expiration date is the point where, according to the individual manufacturer's estimation, the alcohol content in the product drops below 90% of what it was originally listed as on the label. So if the content was originally 60% at the time it was made and packaged, which is the minimum amount recommended by the CDC, it's down to approximately 54% once it reaches the expiration date, and the percentage continues to drop from there.
- No other signs of expiration - According to Dr. Andrew Alexis, MD, in an article for Women's Health Magazine, there are no obvious signs that will let you know if your sanitizer has expired other than the date on the container.
- Fast acting, but temporary - A single application of hand sanitizer is effective for about two minutes.
- Safe, but increasingly less effective - Since the product doesn't go bad, it's still safe to use it after it has reached its expiration date, but its germ-fighting capacity becomes progressively weaker the longer it's been expired.
Safety Tips for Storing Hand Sanitizer
Following a few simple tips can help ensure your hand sanitizer remains at full strength, at least until it reaches its official expiration date.
- Store your sanitizer in a cupboard, a purse, a gym bag, or some place else out of direct sunlight since sunlight and the heat it generates can contribute to alcohol evaporation.
- Keep the sanitizer out of reach of small children and supervise all children while they're applying it in order to avoid accidental poisoning.
- According to Healthcare Facilities Today, hand sanitizer is considered a Class IC flammable liquid and shouldn't be stored in temperatures higher than 73 degrees Fahrenheit/22 degrees Celsius or it could become a fire hazard.
- Placing the container inside a plastic bag with a zipper seal might help slow down the rate of evaporation, but this doesn't mean you should ignore the expiration date.
Don't Risk Your Health
Take a look at that old bottle of hand sanitizer that's been lingering in the bottom of your purse or in your glove compartment and check the expiration date. If it has expired or you can no longer read the date clearly, plan to replace it as soon as you can, even if you have to make your own if it's sold out in stores. It's quick and easy to do and using sanitizer can be an important addition to your regular hand washing routine.