Can I use hand sanitizer to disinfect my cut?

Many people use rubbing alcohol — a common disinfectant — to clean small cuts and other minor wounds.

Most Health Canada approved hand sanitizers have a high percentage of isopropyl or ethanol (both of which are often labelled as “rubbing alcohol”) as their active ingredient, and so it makes sense that many people would believe it would function similarly to disinfect a wound. Ethisan in particular is made with just seven ingredients, including food-grade ethanol, which would appear to make it a safe bet as a disinfectant, right?

Well, not quite.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, most antiseptics commonly used on wounds such as rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide can actually damage healthy tissue exposed around the wound. “New tissue is especially susceptible to harsh antiseptics because it’s more sensitive than mature skin,” according to the clinic’s minor wound care guide.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to totally avoid using hand sanitizer if you have a papercut, for example (although it will sting), only that you shouldn’t use hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol deliberately to disinfect a new cut.

“When it comes to cleaning superficial wounds, good old-fashioned soap and water is the way to go,” said Evan Minior, a nurse practitioner with the Cleveland Clinic. Flushing the wound with lots of warm soapy water is the best course of action. Hand sanitizer is useful to ensure your hands are clean before you get to work cleaning your cut, and rubbing alcohol can be useful if you need to sanitize, for example, tweezers to remove stubborn bits of dirt or grime from the cut.

If the wound is longer than 1/2 inch, you may need stitches, which means you should leave the work of disinfecting the wound to the professionals. In addition to larger wounds, you should also seek medical attention if the wound was caused by a bite or a dirty or rusty object.

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