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As cases of the new coronavirus continue to spread around the world, many of us are searching for things we can do to protect ourselves and others. With the COVID-19 outbreak, it's not surprising that many people are taking extra steps to stay safe, including stocking up on sanitizing sprays, gels and soaps. Small daily habits—like hand hygiene—can reduce your personal risk of infection and transmission. So, let’s explore how hand sanitizer protects you against bacteria and viruses.

Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they basically have an outer wrapping covering the actual virus. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), enveloped viruses are easy to kill. Alcohol is effective at killing different types of microbes, including both viruses and bacteria. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer disrupts the virus envelope, which is a membrane covering the virus particle. When this membrane is disrupted, it inactivates the virus.

To prevent spreading coronavirus, you should wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.  When you can’t wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Hand sanitizer doesn't kill all viruses, but it is effective against the coronavirus. When you take away the protective part of the virus, it dies pretty quickly.

So, you should use hand sanitizer after interacting with or touching anyone who has been sneezing or coughing. But, of course, hand sanitizer and handwashing really protects only your hands from picking up the virus and transferring it to your mouth, nose, and eyes. This is why social distancing is currently recommended everywhere. You should also use hand sanitizer before touching your face or eating if you can’t wash your hands instead. Because, one of the ways that we can get sick is if we have the virus on our fingers and we touch our face.

Often, choosing between handwashing and hand sanitizer comes down to what works better depending on the circumstances. In the hospital, for example, when it comes to performing hand hygiene, an alcohol-based hand rub is actually a preferred method to use. The hand sanitizers are much more convenient, so they make it more likely that people will clean their hands, and that's better than not cleaning at all.

Definitely, washing your hands with soap and water is a good way of protecting yourself against infectious diseases. But when that’s not an option, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can be an effective alternative.