My handwash liquid states that it kills 99.9% of bacteria. This usually comes with a disclaimer at the back: "based on laboratory tests".

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First of all, if I make a handwash, I would certainly like it to have this attribute too. One way is to lie and simply add this (now) ubiquitous phrase (which probably nobody cares anymore). Alternatively, I would actually perform some tests. Yet, these tests do not need to be peer reviewed in any sense, and hence I just need some basic, quick test that can be designed to prove the point.

I doubt these tests are actually carried out. There is no incentive for companies to do so, probably because very few consumers really care about this. In my opinion the 99.9% (instead of 100%) is just a way for these companies to avoid any legal consequence for cases in which some bacterias are not removed by the product.

Maybe some of you do know more about this? Is this just unscientific advertising?

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    Obligatory xkcd reference. Aug 25, 2017 at 11:24
  • Can you narrow it down a bit? The concentration of alcohol in hand sanitizes vary, can we assume >60% alcohol? Also their effectiveness depends on the type of microbes, how do you want to handle that?
    – ventsyv
    Aug 25, 2017 at 17:09
  • They all use pretty similar active ingredients, which are also used in labs and hospitals.
    – user36688
    Aug 25, 2017 at 17:09
  • @ventsyv Could try, but not sure how exactly. The point of the question is to challenge that these handwash kill 99.9% of bacterias, as they claim they do based on "laboratory tests".
    – luchonacho
    Aug 25, 2017 at 17:19
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    I think an also relevant question that relates to this is, "If they do, does regular, non-anti-baterical soap and water washing perform worse?" Aug 30, 2017 at 16:56

1 Answer 1


Short answer: no

Longer answer: yes, but in a cleverly limited way


Many of these products have marketing statements that say the product “kills 99.9% of germs*.” However, somewhere on the container in small print is the list of germs it actually kills, and this list of germs may or may not include some or all of the Influenza viruses.

When a marketing claim of “kills 99.9% of germs” is used, it may or may not kill the specific variety of bacteria or pathogen you need killed. By law, disinfectants must list the microorganisms which a product has been tested for and found to be effective against on their label, as well as proper dilution and directions for use. Check the label for the specific pathogens you need protection from.

So - they may only test on a couple of strains of germs, and claim it kills 99.9% of them.

There are also other "get-outs" for manufacturers of disinfectants and soaps - such as there being no upper limit to the time taken to kill all those germs. Most disinfectants need a contact time of 10-30 minutes to properly disinfect a surface - the 10-20 seconds on your hand before rinsing just isn't the same.

That said - don't stop using soap - because some disinfection is better than no disinfection, but the home disinfectants aren't any better than regular soap for handwashing. The stuff they have in hospitals is a bit harsher, though.

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    "this list of germs may or may not include some or all of the Influenza viruses". Viruses are not affected by hand sanitizers. Sanitizers kill bacteria, not viruses. The normal, healthy human body deals very well with bacteria; we are very resilient against that type of germs. But we are (comparatively) easily afflicted by viral infections. So why the hype? The hype about hand sanitizers originates from patients seeing them used at hospitals. The difference is that at hospitals there are people with weakened immune defences, that do not deal will with bacteria.
    – user32299
    Aug 28, 2017 at 12:50
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    If you have a weakened immune defence, even the otherwise harmless bacterial you have on your hands can become life-threatening. So a bacterial infection — once it takes hold — is a very serious issue, an issue that is becoming a even bigger problem over time as more strains of antibiotics resistance bacterial strains evolve. That is why sanitizers are used at hospitals. But out in plain old everyday life, hand sanitizers are pretty much a waste of effort, because your body deals with the bacteria. Soap and water work better, as they physically wash away both bacteria and viruses.
    – user32299
    Aug 28, 2017 at 12:54
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    @MichaelKarnerfors: "Viruses are not affected by hand sanitizers." -- That is false. There are quite some hand sanitizers that have virucidal properties, especially those used in hospitals.
    – DevSolar
    Aug 30, 2017 at 13:06
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    @DevSolar The majority of consumer hand sanitizers do not do enough about viruses lest you pour so much over your hands you are physically rinsing the viruses away. The CDC states that soap & water are the best way to cleanse your hands of germs. In fact, over reliance on hand sanitizers may even worsen the spread of for instance seasonal flu.
    – user32299
    Aug 30, 2017 at 14:01
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    @MichaelKarnerfors: You're taking reports about specific types of pathogens -- the slate.com article is about influenca specifically -- or simply misquoting -- the CDC link says that soap and water are "the best way to reduce the number of microbes on them in most situations", but then goes on to talk about e.g. high-alcohol sanitizers, or linking to this certifying "excellent" virucidal properties to alcohols, chlorhexidine, iodine compounds, and tricolsan. The statement that viruses are not affected by hand sanitizers is false.
    – DevSolar
    Aug 30, 2017 at 14:12

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