When water isn’t an option and the stores are empty, what can you use instead of hand sanitizer to kill germs? We break down common household items that may be useful in an emergency.
What Can You Use Instead of Hand Sanitizer?
Under normal conditions, hand sanitizer is the go-to for on-the-go hand cleaning, when soap and water isn’t available.
However, when there is a scare (like the recent pandemic), hand sanitizer may not be an option.
We have a big jug of hand sanitizer already on hand for hurricane season, but this week I decided to try to grab another just in case we’re stuck at home.
Too late! Store shelves are bare and any sanitizer left online (such as Amazon) has been marked up to unbelievable prices. Way more expensive than I’m willing to pay.
So I started wondering, what else can I use for hand sanitizer? Are there household products that are also effective at killing bacteria and germs? Things that might be easier to find or not yet had their price jacked up?
Here’s what I found…
What is the Difference Between Antibacterial and Antimicrobial?
The main difference between antibacterial and antimicrobial products is WHAT they kill:
- Antibacterial kills bacteria
- Antimicrobial kills bacteria AND other organisms that cause illness, such as viruses
When looking for a product that can kill viruses, be sure to look for those that are antimicrobial.
7 Alternatives to Hand Sanitizer
Obviously, soap and water is the number one way to clean hands. However, when that’s not an option, hand sanitizer is the next best thing.
But what if there is no hand sanitizer? Here are seven commonly found products you can use in an emergency to clean hands:
Everclear is a brand of grain alcohol that is known for its high alcohol content. The “weakest” version of Everclear is 120 proof (60% alcohol) and the strongest is 190 proof (95% alcohol).
Since experts say that there needs to be 60% or more alcohol in a hand sanitizer to be effective, Everclear definitely meets that threshold.
Keep in mind that the high alcohol formulas are harsher on skin and potentially flammable.
- Is Everclear antibacterial? — YES
- Is Everclear antimicrobial? — YES
2. Rubbing Alcohol
Interestingly, rubbing alcohol with 70% isopropyl is recommended over rubbing alcohol with higher concentrations, such as 90% isopropyl. The higher water content in 70/30 formulations helps better penetrate the cell walls of pathogens.
While 90-99% concentrations do work for disinfecting purposes, it takes longer. It’s also a safety reason — the higher the alcohol concentration, the more flammable the product.
My husband swears by the Wintergreen Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol (70%) that his grandmother always used growing up, and it might be easier to find when there is a run on plain rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer in the stores.
- Is rubbing alcohol antibacterial? — YES
- Is rubbing alcohol antimicrobial? — YES
Due to its prevalence as a wound cleaner for earlier generations, hydrogen peroxide used to be a staple in medicine cabinets. While you might still find it at Grandma’s house, hydrogen peroxide’s popularity waned after it was warned that it could potentially damage healthy cells along with the germs.
That being said, hydrogen peroxide is still considered effective as a sanitizer for surfaces like countertops (approved by the EPA). It can also be used to clean fruits and vegetables (just be sure to rinse well with water!) When using for cleaning purposes, always spot test first, as hydrogen peroxide can have a bleaching effect on some materials.
- Is hydrogen peroxide antibacterial? — YES
- Is hydrogen peroxide antimicrobial? — YES
4. Tea Tree Oil
Used for almost a century in homeopathic medicine, there are a number of recent studies (such as this one and this one) that show tea tree oil may indeed possess antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
When using as a topical antiseptic, you’ll want to dilute it with water to prevent possible skin irritation. Use one cup of water for every teaspoon of tea tree oil.
While it may or may not be as effective as rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer, tea tree oil is definitely better than nothing at all and useful in a pinch!
- Is tea tree oil antibacterial? — Yes, though more research may be needed to determine the level of effectiveness.
- Is tea tree oil antimicrobial? — Yes, though more research may be needed to determine the level of effectiveness.
Popular as a non-toxic cleaner, white vinegar is proven to kill germs and can be used to clean hands, produce, and surfaces. When you don’t have commercial disinfectants available, vinegar can be the next best thing.
Keep in mind that vinegar only kills about 80% of germs, so it should be used as an emergency or when alcohol-based sanitizers are not available.
When using in place of hand sanitizer, Mom.com suggests putting vinegar in a spray bottle, spraying hands liberally, and rubbing it in until it dries.
Perhaps the main complaint about vinegar is the smell, but it’s better than germs!
- Is vinegar antibacterial? — To some degree, yes, but not as effective as alcohol, soap, or bleach.
- Is vinegar antimicrobial? — To some degree, yes, but not as effective as alcohol, soap, or bleach.
Also known as bay rum, alcoholado is produced in Puerto Rico and is a blend of alcohol and other extracts, such as menthol and/or eucalyptus. Traditionally used for a wide range of ailments from muscle aches to bug bites, bay rum is generally around 60-65% alcohol and therefore effective against bacteria.
When you can’t find hand sanitizer or plain rubbing alcohol or they are marked up in price, try this alternative that is just as effective!
- Is alcoholado / bay rum antibacterial? — Yes, when it contains more than 60% alcohol.
- Is alcoholado/bay rum antimicrobial? — Yes, when it contains more than 60% alcohol.
The purpose of aftershave is to keep any nicks and cuts from becoming infected, so it makes sense that aftershave could be used to kill germs on hands too. When there are no other options, aftershave may be handy as an emergency disinfectant.
Check the label to make sure that you’re purchasing an alcohol-based aftershave, as well as the concentration.
Try This: Mr. Fine American Blend Aftershave – it’s flammable (so it’s strong!) and even if you don’t use it as an emergency disinfectant, you can always regift it later!
- Is aftershave antibacterial? — Yes, when it contains more than 60% alcohol
- Is aftershave antimicrobial? — Yes, when it contains more than 60% alcohol.
Keep in Mind…These are for Emergency Use Only!
It’s important to note that these items are for emergencies only. If you have soap and water available, that is always the best option.
Proper hand washing is always the safest and most effective way to prevent the spread of germs and illness.
If you’re out and about and don’t have access to soap and water, or if your water supply is disrupted or contaminated, hand sanitizer is the next best thing.
If you can’t get any hand sanitizer, then and only then should you move on to trying alternatives.
A few important safety tips:
- Always spot test first. Even regular commercial hand sanitizer can irritate skin when used too much. Anything with high concentrations of alcohol or that is acidic in nature (like vinegar) can be an irritant. Stop using if there is any irritation at all.
- Keep our of reach of kids and pets.
- Do not ingest. These products are dangerous or even deadly if you drink them. Don’t do it and don’t leave them out where kids could get to them and try them!
- Handle and store with care. Products with high alcohol content can be flammable or combustible if stored improperly or used near open flame.
Hand Sanitizer Alternatives Shopping List
Note: For your convenience, we provided shopable ad links where possible; read our disclosure policy here.
- Rubbing Alcohol (if using over 70% alcohol, be sure to dilute)
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Tea Tree Oil
- Menthol Rubbing Alcohol
- White vinegar
What to Skip
- Vodka — At 40% alcohol, vodka and many other spirits — such as gin and whiskey — do not have a high enough alcohol concentration to be effective.
- Bleach — While bleach definitely kills bacteria, it is too harsh on skin to recommend as a hand sanitizer. Though it’s still an excellent way to disinfect the home!
- Witch Hazel — With only 10-30% alcohol, witch hazel does not contain as much alcohol as experts recommend. Though perhaps it is better than nothing!
- Mouthwash — Even original Listerine is only about 26% alcohol, which isn’t half the recommended concentration for killing germs.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, simply a mom looking to keep my family safe and healthy. This post is based on research found and sources are linked where cited. I always try to use trusted sources, though I can’t be responsible for content on other websites.
You might also like: