Remember the urgency at the start of COVID to stock up on hand sanitizer and, stashing any available bottle in your purse, desk, coat pocket and your car’s cup holder? Yeah…we do, too! Whether fruit-scented, travel-sized or brightly colored, we all dove headfirst into buying up hand sanitizer. And chances are, now you’ve got more than a few bottles or tubes stashed in your junk drawer or tucked around your home and office.
While it never hurts to have hand sanitizer at your fingertips — especially since laboratory results found gas station pump handles to be one of the germiest things you might handle and separate research says grocery store carts have more bacteria than public restrooms — your current stash may have expired. But are all those expired hand sanitizers still safe to use? And do they still work? Before hitting the panic button after noticing the expiration date printed on the top, back or bottom of the package, read on to know how to handle expired hand sanitizer.
Why do hand sanitizers have an expiration date?
Hand sanitizer is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and that distinction requires it to have an expiration date. Expiration dates are determined by manufacturers’ estimate of how long it will take the level of sterilizing ingredients, like ethyl and isopropyl alcohol, in their product to dip below an effective level. Requiring that date is the agency’s way to make sure consumers know how long the alcohol in the product is able to kill virus-causing germs, sparing you from the common cold and norovirus, a.k.a. the stomach flu. Hand sanitizer’s expiration date also lets you know if the product can effectively kill sick-making bacteria.
But here’s the catch: The FDA does not have a recommendation or guideline to set an expiration date, leaving that task solely up to manufacturers. However, many have followed the guidance of the World Health Organization that says two years from the date of manufacturing is a reasonable expiration date for hand sanitizers.
Does hand sanitizer really expire?
The very reason you don’t need a towel to dry your hands after spraying them with hand sanitizer is why there’s a need for a hand sanitizer’s expiration date. The alcohol in hand sanitizer evaporates over time when exposed to air every time you open the package as well as while the bottle hangs out in your purse, because the packages aren’t totally airtight. “This lessens the effectiveness of unused hand sanitizer in the bottle” says osteophathic physician Lewis Jassey, DO, medical director at the telehealth platform Leafwell. Leaving your hand sanitizer in a warm, sunny spot — like those cup holders we mentioned — can also speed up evaporation of its germ-zapping alcohol.
Is it okay to use expired hand sanitizer?
While it’s not dangerous to use expired hand sanitizer, Dr. Jassey says lathering up with it could leave you with a false sense of security because “the expired products do not provide the same level of protection from germs as fresh products.”
The sniff test is one quick way to tell if your expired hand sanitizer is still effective. The experts at the Environment, Health and Safety Division at Berkeley Lab says it’s okay to keep using expired hand sanitizer if you still smell a strong odor of alcohol or if it still evaporates quickly.
What about hand sanitizer that’s never been opened? That factory seal reduces the odds the alcohol evaporated, says Charles Gerba, PhD, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona. “As long as it is in a sealed container, I could see no problem.”
Can I do anything to make expired hand sanitizer more effective?
Trying to revive your old, or expired, hand sanitizer by adding rubbing alcohol to it (something many people attempt) isn’t a good idea. So says the CDC, who explains that’s unlikely to produce an effective hand sanitizer product. One possible side effect of dumping alcohol into your expired hand sanitizer: contact dermatitis, according to a study published in Contact Dermatitis. “Skin irritation, dryness or burns can also occur if you accidentally put too much alcohol into your hand sanitizer bottle,” cautions Dr. Jassey.
It’s also not a great idea to combine half-used bottles of hand sanitizer or trying to extend the life of one by adding a squirt of new product to expired hand sanitizer. The reason? This also increases the risk of developing a skin irritation like contact dermatitis, say experts at the FDA, which cautions against mixing or “topping off” expired hand sanitizers.
Are there any other uses for old hand sanitizer?
Even though your favorite hand sanitizer expired, it’s still handy for tackling a variety of household tasks.
Spot clean your carpet
“The alcohol in expired hand sanitizer makes it a great spot cleaner on carpets, certain fabrics or surfaces,” says Colin Matthiesen, Marketing and Quality Assurance Specialist at PR Cleaners in Canada. Just remember to do a small test area first, before spraying hand sanitizer all over a large stain.
Use it as dry shampoo
No time to wash and dry your hair? No problem! Spray a little hand sanitizer on your hair and scalp and massage it into your roots and hair, as a quick and easy dry shampoo.
Clean your glasses
No more looking at the world through dirty lenses! Use hand sanitizer with no more than 70% isopropyl alcohol to clear away fingerprints, smudges and even hairspray from your eyeglasses.
Polish your silver
Remember those treasured — but now tarnished—silver pieces you inherited from your grandmother or favorite aunt? The experts at eMop Cleaning Service, based in London, say squirting a few drops of hand sanitizer on a small clean cloth can give them a quick and effective polish. Once shiny, just rinse with water, pat dry and…voila!
What’s the best way to get rid of expired sanitizer?
One thing to never do is flush expired hand sanitizer down the drain or toilet, because along with contributing to water pollution, it can cause fires and even explosions in water pipes and sewers. If you still have expired hand sanitizer laying around after trying the ideas above, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says empty hand sanitizer containers may be tossed in your curbside recycling bin, but bottles that aren’t empty should be taken to a household hazardous waste drop-off location. You can find one near you here.