What was once haphazardly crammed into the glove compartment of your car, hand sanitizer has now become an absolute necessity in everyone's handbags and pockets, as the global pandemic continues on throughout many parts of the world. Clean hands are crucial to fighting the virus, but are the gallons of hand sanitizer we all hoarded at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 still effective to use today? We asked an internal medicine physician for his take below. 

Does hand sanitizer actually expire? 

All good things must come to an end, including your unused hand sanitizer. "Hand sanitizer typically has a shelf life of around two to three years," explains Vivek Cherian, MD, an Internal Medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. "This expiration date reflects how long the sanitizer's active ingredients remain effective." So, if you purchased a lot of hand sanitizer last year and are still using it up, it's safe to say that you can probably still use it effectively now—check the expiration date to see how old it might be. 

Using Hand Sanitizer
Credit: Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

Is it safe to use expired hand sanitizer? 

If you've got hand sanitizer that's more than two or three years old, you can still use it, but be wary of its effectiveness. "If you use hand sanitizer after expiration, it's not harmful and likely will have some retained effectiveness (as the main ingredient is alcohol), but ideally, try to stick to using hand sanitizer before it expires," explains Dr. Cherian. 

Is hand sanitizer more effective than washing your hands? 

According to Dr. Cherian, nothing beats washing your hands with soap and water. "The reason behind this is with running water, you have the mechanical aspect that can remove visible dirt, and using soap and water is more effective at removing certain germs as well," says Dr. Cherian. "That being said, using hand sanitizer is of course better than doing nothing at all!"