Can hand sanitizer expire and still be effective?

There is a certain amount of convenience that comes with hand sanitizer, because of its ability to be brought along wherever you think you might need it. It’s not uncommon to find a hand sanitizer in someone’s car, or at the bottom of a purse. Like anything that is kept in places we don’t find ourselves looking everyday, the question as to whether or not it is effective, should be taken into consideration. At times, having access to soap and water is impossible so, more often than not, we rely on our hand sanitizer to do the job of fighting harmful germs. But a common question that has been arising is, “Does hand sanitizer expire?” 

What is Hand Sanitizer?

Hand Sanitizers are regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and the only two alcohols permitted as active ingredients in any alcohol-based hand sanitizer are ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol.  Alcohol kills germs by essentially breaking down the walls of the germ’s cells, and when the alcohol evaporates it is, in layman’s terms, taking the germs with it. To be potent enough to kill germs on the skin, the CDC recommends hand sanitizer should contain 60-90% alcohol. 

So does Hand Sanitizer Expire?

The short answer is yes. Alcohol is classified as a shelf stable chemical. This means that if it is properly packaged and kept in a sealed, airtight container at room temperature, it should not expire. So if you never open your hand sanitizer, then it does not expire. However, if you are opening and using your hand sanitizer from time to time, then yes, it does expire. The FDA also requires for an expiration date to be printed on the packaging, and should be referenced. It’s standard for most hand sanitizers to have an expiration date of 2-3yrs after being opened. This is because over time, as the sanitizer is being opened and closed, the alcohol will begin to evaporate. Alcohol evaporates easily because of its low boiling point and, over time, the concentration of alcohol within the sanitizer will diminish. This will, eventually, decrease the effectiveness of the hand sanitizer. If you have found that you have been walking around using an expired hand sanitizer, fret not. It could still work. The efficiency of the hand sanitizer will diminish as time goes on, but  the alcohol doesn’t suddenly disappear on its labeled expiration date. 

Wood Alcohol vs Others

This past year the FDA issued a warning to consumers about the presence of methanol or “wood alcohol” in some imported hand sanitizers. Large traces of this can cause serious side effects like headaches, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, seizures or death. Contact with this ingredient should not be taken lightly and you should seek out immediate attention with a health provider. 

Brands like Bluemen, Modesa, The honey keeper, V-clean and Dolphin hands were on the list that the FDA posted as recommended not to use. A list of these products can be found here.

With hand sanitizer being a staple in our daily lives, it is important to purchase it from a reputable company that manufactures in the USA.

The moral of the story is, while it may not happen overnight, hand sanitizer will expire. So check the bottom of your packaging not only for the expiration date, but take a glimpse at the ingredient list too!