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What You Need to Know About COVID-19 Prevention: Hand Sanitizers vs. Disinfectants

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Person applying soap to hands for Covid 19 prevention

Source: Anna Shvets [17]

Due to recent events, people have been swarming the supermarkets and online marketplaces to buy products that claim to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although the Indonesia National Board for Disaster Management advises that the prevention would be much more effective by washing hands with soap [1], people have also stocked up on hand sanitizers and disinfectants. But, how do hand sanitizers and disinfectants really work?

Hand sanitizers are only effective when the percentage of alcohol is above 60% [2]. According to The Jakarta Post, studies have found these hand sanitizers to be effective in eliminating bacterias and viruses such as E coli and hepatitis A by destroying the envelope proteins outside the viruses [3].

Professor Sally Bloomfield of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reports that coronavirus is one of the viruses that can be destroyed by alcohol, but how the virus spreads is still relatively unknown [4]. Also, nobody is completely certain whether the chemicals contained in sanitizers are enough to kill the virus, hence washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is a more effective and widely recommended method.

Furthermore, Virologist Dr. John Williams elaborates that the bubbles produced during hand-wash will break the chemical bonds between viruses and surfaces, reducing the risk of it from spreading even more [5].

However, it needs to be underlined that hand sanitizer is still the best solution to clean your hands when there’s no water and soap around. Then what about disinfectant, one may ask?

Similarly, disinfectants can be used to kill microorganisms, but unlike sanitizers and antiseptics, disinfectants contain bleach which are not safe for humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reiterated this fact and have strongly advised wearing rubber gloves or other layered protection when coming in contact with the substance [6]. Ministry of Health Aceh, also states that being exposed to the chemicals may trigger skin irritation and respiratory problems [7].



As reported by the local news, public areas in several big cities, including Surabaya, Jakarta, Medan, have been sprayed with disinfectant, some directly to the streets and its surrounding areas by police gunner cars [8].

Surabaya was the first city in Indonesia to provide a disinfectant booth which works by spraying disinfectant directly onto people’s bodies [9], contrary to WHO’s advice which states the ethanol, chlorine, and H2O2 in disinfectants can cause harm to our mucous membranes on our eyes and mouth [10].

Prof. Dr. Fredy Kurniawan M.Si, of Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS), explains how the chemicals used were ozone and chlorine dioxide instead. The former is proven effective to kill SARS Cov-2 while the latter is quite safe if inhaled for a short period of time. However, he adds that the ingredients should only be handled by the relevant medical authorities [11].


Water droplets of leaf

Source: Min An [18]

The environmental effects of disinfectants depend on the chemicals used. According to Chinese researcher Zhang Liubo, sodium hypochlorite (bleach) based disinfectant are harmful to the environment given that the chemical increases pollution as it spreads around the city [12].

Instead of using bleach, our local government claims that Indonesia uses benzalkonium chloride, which is a commonly found in chemical substance across cleaning products such as soap and shampoo [13]. In high concentrations, it kills germs, viruses, and other microorganisms.

However, the liquid solution may still be harmful to the environment as The International Labor Organization explains that benzalkonium chloride is very toxic to aquatic organisms because it is corrosive and flammable [14].

In contrast, an experiment by Khan (2016) shows how wastewater, if treated properly isn’t toxic for two kinds of algae, Chlorella Vulgaris and Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii. While properly processed wastewater might reduce harmful effects towards the environment, it still negatively affects the metabolic and growth processes of plants that come in contact with it [15].

Soap, on the other hand, is proven to be harmless for the environment as a study by Aarhaus University concluded that its components break down quickly before it becomes an environmental threat [16]. To read more about the effects of coronavirus on the environment Click Here.


Source: Burst [19]

As well as having negative effects to the environment, using disinfectants and hand sanitizers rather than soap pose a higher risk of harming our bodies as well. Disinfectants are meant to be used for non-living objects and under experts’ recommendation only, while soap is the direct opposite, hence making it the best option to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our daily lives.

Outside, our local governments have been putting in their best efforts to reduce the spread and casualty of this global virus by spraying disinfectants to open spaces and closed booths. While the effectiveness of this method is still undetermined, it is still important to remember the environmental impacts it is associated with, more specifically about how it harms plants and trees because environmental health is just as important as our own. Nonetheless, we should still be grateful for the efforts they have been putting in and continue to do our part by self-quarantining, applying social distancing, and washing our hands for at least 20 seconds.


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Editor: Christopher Randy


14. International Labour Organization.

15. Khan, A. H. (2016).



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