When the coronavirus pandemic first broke out, hand sanitizer was one of the first products to fly off the shelves, becoming a scarcity over the past few months as manufacturers struggled to meet demand. If you were one of the lucky ones who nabbed a giant bottle before the shortage, congratulations! But there's a little detail you should know — hand sanitizer actually goes bad, so make sure you use up all your product before you're left with ineffective goop.
In the United States, hand sanitizer is considered an over-the-counter (OTC) drug, which means the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the product. "OTC drug products generally must list an expiration date, unless they have data showing that they are stable for more than three years," an FDA spokesperson tells Hunker.
Hand sanitizer, or more specifically, the active ingredient inside it (usually a type of alcohol) does not meet that threshold, so if you check your bottle of mass-produced hand sanitizer, you'll see an expiration date that falls somewhere in the range of two to three years after the date of production. The issue is that once a bottle of hand sanitizer is opened, the product will start losing its potency — and therefore it may be less effective in killing germs.
"Upon opening, the active ingredient starts evaporating. That's why there is such a strong alcohol smell when you use hand sanitizer," Dr. Jason Benedict, an associate professor of chemistry and director of graduate studies at the University of Buffalo, tells Hunker. "The two-to-three-year expiration date is likely based upon a manufacturers estimation of how quickly the alcohol leaves the bottle." And if you've made your own alcohol-based hand sanitizer during the pandemic, note that it'll also expire within two to three years.
So can you still use expired hand sanitizer? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we should be using hand sanitizer that's at least 60% alcohol for peak effectiveness. If you're using an expired product, there's no way to be sure that the alcohol concentration is at that mark. But ultimately, using expired hand sanitizer isn't going to hurt you.
"Past the expiration date, it's probably less effective, but it won't harm you and still works to some extent," says Dr. Benedict. "It's kind of like aspirin. Not that I'm advocating for the consumption of expired medication, but I think many folks own and have probably used expired aspirin."
All this said, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the FDA has temporarily relaxed some of its hand sanitizer production policies, which means that some bottles might not have expiration dates at all. "To address the supply shortage of hand sanitizers, FDA developed multiple guidance documents for the temporary preparation of hand sanitizers by pharmacies and other companies during the public health emergency posed by COVID-19," says the FDA spokesperson. "Hand sanitizer produced under the temporary policies for hand sanitizer production and compounding may not have an expiration date listed because they are expected to be used during this public health emergency."
Thus if you don't see an expiration date on your hand sanitizer, that doesn't mean it's everlasting — it just means you should use it up as quickly as possible.
Stefanie is a New York–based writer and editor. She has served on the editorial staffs of Architectural Digest, ARTnews, and Oyster.com, a TripAdvisor company, before setting out on her own as a freelancer. Her beats include architecture, design, art, travel, science, and history, and her words have appeared in Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, Popular Science, Mental Floss, Galerie, Jetsetter, and History.com, among others. In another life, she'd be a real estate broker since she loves searching for apartments and homes.