Can You Use Your Hand Sanitizer on Cuts or Wounds?

Because of the current global pandemic, hand sanitizer is quickly becoming part of people's every day carry list of items. Small bottles have found their way into purses, on keychains, and in cars the world over. Shortages in sanitizer have even led to a variety of different breweries to temporarily convert their facilities to the production of the alcohol-based substance.

We've been covering hand sanitizer in a few different ways recently. We've talked about how much you should use, and about whether or not you should use it after washing your hands. We've also talked about using it to sanitize your phone or cleanse your gloves. For those of you who are more safety-conscious, we've even discussed the possibility of allergic reactions to hand sanitizer.

One thing we've mentioned a couple of times throughout these articles is your skin. In particular, your skin is a barrier between the sensitive, exposed flesh and blood inside you, and the world of pathogens and contaminants in the air and on surfaces you touch.

One problem many people are encountering with frequent hand sanitizer and hand washing use is that skin dries out with repeated applications of soap or alcohol.

These ingredients are critical to properly sanitize your hands, but they also strip your skin of its natural protective oils. This can lead to dry and cracked skin, particularly around the nails and cuticles.

Any time your skin is broken, whether it's from cracked and dry skin or from cuts and wounds, it's an opening. That opening is a path where an infection can get in, whether it's a topical infection of the wound site or a systemic infection like the flu or Coronavirus. 

Sanitizing Wounds

Normally, if you have a cut in your skin, it's pretty easy to take care of. You sanitize it, then you cover it with a bandage and let it heal.

In these times of pandemic and the potential for infected surfaces, things get a little more complicated. If you get a papercut on your finger or palm, for example, what do you do? you can sanitize and put a bandage over the wound, but that gets in the way of future sanitization for the rest of your hands. It gets in the way of hand washing or hand sanitizer use.

Normally, wound care is something most of us kind of ignore. Bleeding is usually enough to flush contaminants out of a wound before it clots, and most of us have well-functioning immune systems to keep minor infections at bay while the wound heals. Unfortunately, if we're constantly washing the site or applying hand sanitizer, it can keep re-opening the wound. Not to mention the possibility of picking up an environmental contaminant in a wound like that.

Proper wound sanitization is a longer process.

  1. Wash your hands (including the wound on your hands) to prevent contaminating the wound site with your dirty hands.
  2. Apply pressure to the wound site until it stops bleeding. If the wound is especially deep, long, or jagged, or the bleeding doesn't stop, you should seek medical attention.
  3. Rinse the wound with water to remove any particles stuck around the wound. Larger particles may need to be removed with tweezers, in the case of wounds caused by larger impacts, falls, or crashes.
  4. Apply some kind of antibiotic cream, like Neosporin.
  5. Bandage the wound to keep contaminants out and to keep it from re-opening.

What happens, though, if you've cut yourself on your hand and still need to go about your day normally? You have a few options.

Option 1: Wear Gloves

Normally, we're not going to highly recommend gloves for this pandemic. Gloves can protect your hands from surface contamination, but they can still transfer contamination from a surface to your face, to your phone, your wallet or purse, or other surfaces. Gloves are meant to be worn for a specific task and then discarded.

What about all those people who put on gloves when they leave the house and keep wearing them (from their vehicle to the store, then back to their vehicle and wearing it all the way home), then discarding them once they're home? They're giving themselves a false sense of security. Those gloves are carrying just as many germs as their hands would be if they had no gloves. They consider themselves more protected because they aren't getting germs on their hands, but they're still spreading contamination to their car, their phone, and other surfaces.

You can certainly still wear gloves, and in fact, a wound on your hand is one of the primary reasons you might want to wear them. Just remember that you should either be sanitizing the gloves regularly or discarding them after each task.

Think about your schedule like a hospital rotation where you're the nurse. Put on gloves not when you leave the house, but when you're about to enter a patient's room (or a store, or another public facility where you might touch contaminated surfaces). When you leave the store, properly remove the gloves and discard them in a receptacle (not on the ground!). Move from one store to the next and, before entering your next destination, put on a fresh pair of gloves.

Gloves are impermeable to some contaminants, but not all. Gloves can also develop tiny pinholes and other leaks, so it's always good to continue to wash your hands despite wearing gloves. Wearing gloves does, however, help protect a wound from environmental contamination.

Option 2: Hand Sanitizer

Using hand sanitizer regularly is important for when you're exposed to potentially contaminated surfaces, but is it safe when you have an open wound on your hands? 

You've probably heard that alcohol is used to sanitize wounds, and indeed things like isopropyl alcohol are included with first aid kids for a reason. 

Unfortunately, this is a pretty bad idea. Using alcohol on a cut or open wound can actually kill the healthy cells inside the wound and do more damage than soap and water. Alcohol is very harsh! Alcohol is included in first aid kids because it's better than a dirty wound getting infected, but if you have access to even just water, that's still better. Soap and water is the best option.

You should avoid using a hand sanitizer on an open wound. Soap and water, an antibiotic ointment, and a bandage are all you should use. If your wound gets infected or it has deep embedded particles, or if the wound is long, jagged, or deep, you should see a medical professional, not try to care for it yourself out of your first aid kit. You might end up doing more damage than you help.

This applies to both regular alcohol-based hand sanitizers and non-alcohol hand sanitizers. Hand sanitizers that don't have alcohol in them still have some kind of antiseptic, and that antiseptic will at best do nothing inside an open wound. In some cases, it can even work to prevent natural healing processes, and that's the last thing you want to do when you have a wound on your hand.

So what do you do if you have an open wound? Go back to option 1! Gloves will protect your hands enough, when used properly, and will help mitigate the need to use hand sanitizer constantly. Just wash with soap and water regularly.

The Best Option 

The ideal way to handle an open wound on your hand, in these days where you have to be washing your hands regularly any time you go out, you should follow these procedures.

First, stay at home whenever possible. This applies whether or not you have a wound on your hand, to be honest. The less exposure you have to environmental contamination, the less likely you are to catch any disease, let alone Coronavirus.

Second, make sure to wash your hands regularly with soap and water. You've read a thousand articles about proper handwashing techniques by now, so we're not going to repeat them here. Just make sure you're using soap and water on a regular basis. Yes, this may mean peeling off a bandage and washing a wound again, but once it has sealed up somewhat, you shouldn't be opening it up again. Be careful, but sanitize.

Third, wear gloves to protect the wound when you are forced to go out. As mentioned above, make sure to wear them as a shield when you're in a danger zone, and remove them when you're coming back to a familiar area. Treat them the same way you would treat your hands or gloves after handling raw chicken; any surface you touch, be it a steering wheel, a doorknob, or your phone, needs to be sanitized. 

Fourth, use hand sanitizer whenever you need to and when soap and water is not available. We actually recommend using a full sealing bandage rather than your typical line-like bandage. Something like this will seal all the way around the edge of the bandage, rather than just on the ends. This full seal keeps both hand sanitizer and soap and water out of the wound and can be washed just like the surface of your skin. If you have this kind of bandage, you don't have to peel it off before washing or using hand sanitizer.

Fifth, make sure to keep some kind of moisturizing lotion on hand. Frequent application of soap or hand sanitizer will dry out your skin on your hands, and you want to help minimize this discomfort. A moisturizer that you use immediately after washing your hands, or after every second application of hand sanitizer, will help prevent your skin from drying out. 

Finally, keep an eye on the wound to make sure it isn't getting infected. Look for redness and inflammation around the wound or any signs of pus, swelling, and  unnatural colors. A little redness or a scab is fine; however, oozing, continued bleeding, or any unusual colors are not. They may be a sign of infection and should be treated by a doctor.

A Note About Coronavirus

One thing to mention here is Coronavirus specifically. As of this writing, there is no evidence that Coronavirus can spread through a wound on your hands. Dry and cracked skin and cuts on your hands are openings through your skin, yes, and they expose the lower layers of skin, tissue, and blood to potential infections. However, the infections that can get into a wound are not the same as Coronavirus.

Coronavirus needs a certain kind of cell to act as a receptor for the virus. For the most part, these are cells in your respiratory system, which is why the virus affects the lungs more than anything else. You don't have lung cells in your hands or in your blood, and your blood will not carry a virus from your hands to your lungs.

The risk of Coronavirus on your hands is that you will pick up the virus on your hands and then touch your face, where the virus can get into your system through your nose or mouth, which leads much more directly to your lungs. Washing your hands and avoiding touching your face is how you prevent this method of infection. A cut will not change this one way or the other.

In general, you should keep your hands clean and avoid touching your face. An open wound will hurt when you wash and may stick if you apply hand sanitizer, but if you keep it sealed in with a good bandage, you should be more protected. Change the bandage once or twice a day for the best effect, and after a couple of days, your wound should have healed enough that you are no longer at risk of tearing it open or getting an infection.

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