Does Hand Sanitizer Expire?

Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol helps kill germs when soap and water aren't available. However, the disinfectant properties reduce over time.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, hand sanitizer has probably become essential. 

Even if you've been fully vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, you should continue to slow the virus's spread. One way to do so is using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available.

So, having a supply of hand sanitizer is a pretty sensible move. However, don't go stockpiling until you know if and when hand sanitizer expires. 


Does Hand Sanitizer Expire?

Hand sanitizer does expire, Karen Dobos, Ph.D., a professor in the department of microbiology, immunology, and pathology at Colorado State University, told Health.

Alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, the two active ingredients in hand sanitizer, decrease over time. This is because the alcohol evaporates while the hydrogen peroxide converts to water. As those ingredients decrease, your hand sanitizer becomes less effective at killing germs.

The good news is that if you use hand sanitizer regularly, you'll probably finish the bottle long before its expiration date. If you store hand sanitizer unopened and in a cool, dry place, some evidence suggests that hand sanitizer lasts as long as 2.5 years.

Also, treat hand sanitizer like you do your sunscreen sprays and insect repellents, suggested Dobos. In other words, replace hand sanitizer if you haven't used it in about a year.

Hand sanitizer must list an expiration date as an over-the-counter (OTC) product. The only exception is if the manufacturer has data showing that the product can be stable for over three years.

Where To Store Hand Sanitizer

Even though most hand sanitizers have expiration or use-by dates, those are estimates. People store and use hand sanitizers under different conditions. So, the products lose their potency at different rates.

For example, leaving hand sanitizer in a hot car speeds up the evaporation of the alcohol and the conversion of hydrogen peroxide to water. So, avoid storing hand sanitizer in a car during summer or anywhere over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. However, keeping a small bottle in your glovebox for short periods should be fine.

"How long a sanitizer lasts is a function of storage conditions," William L. Schreiber, Ph.D., the chair of the department of chemistry at Monmouth University, told Health. "The alcohol will certainly evaporate faster in a hot car than most other storage conditions, rendering the product ineffective."

Is It Safe To Use Expired Hand Sanitizer?

If you've realized you've been using hand sanitizer past its expiration date, don't worry. Using expired hand sanitizer is not a big issue and is not harmful.

"Expired hand sanitizer isn't dangerous," explained Dobos. "But it is less effective." Also, using expired hand sanitizer is better than nothing.

"When hiking or at the park with my kids, when there's nothing to wash our hands with—especially in winter when the water is turned off—expired hand sanitizer is better than nothing," noted Dobos.

Expired hand sanitizer may be less effective than usual. This is because the disinfectant properties are weak. Still, the physical motions you go through to apply it, also known as mechanical washing, are a plus, added Dobos. 

"Since hand sanitizers also contain some glycerol [or aloe], this helps break up dirt with mechanical washing," noted Dobos.

In short, using your best judgment is key, advised Schreiber: "If a bottle has never been opened but is near or past its expiration date, it's likely to be OK."

How To Tell if Hand Sanitizer Has Expired

Beyond checking the expiration date, figuring out whether hand sanitizer has expired is not always easy. 

"The alcohol used for hand sanitizer has to go through a process known as 'denaturation,' which results in a slight aroma," explained Dobos. 

Denaturation makes hand sanitizer less appealing to ingest. The denatured alcohol makes the hand sanitizer taste bad and deters children from digesting it. Once they've tasted it, they won't want to continue eating it.

While you shouldn't directly smell or ingest hand sanitizer, putting some on a surface and wafting your hand over it can help, suggested Dobos. That method can determine whether the alcohol content is still reasonably high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using hand sanitizers that contain a minimum of 60% alcohol.

Another good indication that the alcohol content is still reasonably high is seeing how viscous, or thick, the sanitizer is, added Dobos. If your hand sanitizer looks pretty thick and gloopy or takes longer to dry on application than it used to, it's probably time to replace it.

A Quick Review

Hand sanitizer can expire. Still, using expired hand sanitizer, especially if it's your only option, doesn't hurt. However, expired hand sanitizer may not be as effective in killing germs as usual. 

Pay attention to its smell and texture to know whether your hand sanitizer has expired. Also, keep an eye on those expiration dates so you can replace your bottle when needed.

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