Background A procedure for including activity against enveloped viruses in the post-contamination treatment of hands has been recommended, but so far no European standard is available to implement it. In 2004, the German Robert Koch-Institute (RKI) and the German Association for the Control of Virus Disease (DVV) suggested that vaccinia virus and bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) should be used as test viruses in a quantitative suspension test to determine the activity of a disinfectant against all enveloped viruses. Methods We have studied the activities of three commonly-used alcohol-based hand rubs (hand rub A, based on 45% propan-2-ol, 30% propan-1-ol and 0.2% mecetronium etilsulfate; hand rub B, based on 80% ethanol; hand rub C, based on 95% ethanol) against vaccinia virus and BVDV, and in addition against four other clinically relevant enveloped viruses: herpes simplex virus (HSV) types 1 and 2, and human and avian influenza A virus. The hand rubs were challenged with different organic loads at exposure time of 15, 30 and 60 s. According to the guidelines of both BGA/RKI and DVV, and EN 14476:2005, the reduction of infectivity of each test virus was measured on appropriate cell lines using a quantitative suspension test. Results All three alcohol-based hand rubs reduced the infectivity of vaccinia virus and BVDV by >= 4 log10-steps within 15 s, irrespective of the type of organic load. Similar reductions of infectivity were seen against the other four enveloped viruses within 15 s in the presence of different types of organic load. Conclusions Commonly used alcohol-based hand rubs with a total alcohol concentration >= 75% can be assumed to be active against clinically relevant enveloped viruses if they effectively reduce the infectivities of vaccinia virus and BVDV in a quantitative suspension test.