Read this before you dig out old bottles of this product from cabinets and drawers.

By Nancy Mattia
May 01, 2020
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Among the products that have been in short supply since the novel coronavirus started sweeping the nation a few months ago is hand sanitizer. It's no wonder: Washing your hands on a frequent basis is one of the best defenses against contracting—or spreading—the deadly virus. If you're like most people, though, you've looked everywhere for a bottle of sanitizer only to find that all the grocery stores, online retailers, even office-supply stores say the same thing: out of stock. Three little words, one big worry—what now?

Then, you find a bottle that's been sitting in the back of your closet probably for several years. Is it still good, or does hand sanitizer expire after awhile? To find out, we investigated the facts on manufacturing and regulation.

Does hand sanitizer have an expiration date, and does it lose its effectiveness immediately after it?

Yes, hand sanitizer does have an expiration date, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should throw it out if the date listed on the bottle has passed. What makes a sanitizer most effective in removing bacteria and germs is an alcohol content of at least 60 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sanitizer expires because its alcohol content dissolves over time—once it drops below 60 percent alcohol, it won't be as effective at killing germs. If an expired bottle of sanitizer is unopened, it will have retained much of its alcohol strength; alternatively, an opened bottle will have lost some strength because the alcohol will have evaporated, and the product won't be as effective but is still safe to use.

It's worth noting that some new bottles produced under a temporary Food & Drug Administration (FDA) policy to step up production may not have an expiration date listed. These new bottles of sanitizer are expected to be used during the current public health emergency and not linger in the back of a closet for years.

Why is there an expiration date?

Hand sanitizers are regulated by the FDA, which requires manufacturers to print an expiration date on all over-the-counter drugs unless a company has data showing that the product is stable for more than three years.

If I have an expired product, what are my other alternatives?

Use plain old soap and water. It's the CDC's first choice for effective hand-washing (hand sanitizer is the next best thing). Though antibacterial soap sounds like a better product to use than regular soap, it's not, at least for now. The FDA says that the elevated status of antibacterials hasn't been proven so far; use bottled hand sanitizer as a backup if soap and water aren't available, like when you're outdoors or in a store. Whether using soap or sanitizer, wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds and moisturize them after each wash to prevent dry, cracked skin.