Before the birth of hand sanitizer in the 1990s, we focused on one way to get rid of germs: hand washing. When done correctly, hand washing is a very effective way to reduce exposure to disease-causing microorganisms. Hot water and soap and twenty seconds of washing—long enough to sing the ABC song or happy birthday to yourself—can do the trick. Surgeons do it every day…but to a longer song!
But then there are real-life situations. Soap and water aren’t always available when they’re needed, it’s difficult to get children to wash their hands correctly, you’re in a hurry and tell yourself you’ll do it later, and so on.
Hand sanitizer is often thought of as a substitute for soap and water hand washing, and it can be much more convenient. You can keep a small bottle of sanitizer or wipes in your car, purse, desk, pocket, beach bag, and you’re ready to go. You may feel safe and secure when using these products, but have you read the ingredients on the label of your favorite hand sanitizer lately? Is that sanitizer friend or foe?
Hand sanitizer: toxic ingredients
If you want to be sure you and your family are using a safe and effective hand sanitizer, then you should know which ingredients to avoid. The good news: there are several excellent, safe hand sanitizers on the market that you can pack into your bag. But first, let’s read those labels!
Alcohol. Most hand sanitizers contain alcohol in the form of ethyl alcohol (or ethanol) or, in some cases, isopropyl alcohol. While soap and water kill germs on the skin by flushing them away, hand sanitizers remain on the skin and kill germs on contact and through evaporation, but only if there is at least 60 percent alcohol in the product. That’s a high percentage of alcohol.
Children who use alcohol-based hand sanitizers may ingest alcohol from their hands and risk poisoning. In fact, isopropyl alcohol is a neurotoxin as well as an eye and skin irritant. Alcohol also removes the skin’s natural oils, dehydrates skin cells, increases the risk of contact dermatitis, and may make you more likely to develop fine lines and wrinkles.
Triclosan. Also available as triclocarban, this is a toxic pesticide that you can find in personal care items such as soaps, toothpaste, and deodorants. Although it has antibacterial properties, it doesn’t kill cold and flu viruses. It may, however, disrupt hormone function, cause liver damage, and promote the development of cancer and super germs. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration banned its use in antibacterial soaps, but not in hand sanitizers.
Fragrances. That new hand sanitizer you just bought may have a nice scent, but is something foul going on? Basically, fragrances are a mystery to consumers because the industry isn’t required to let the public know the ingredients. Fragrance ingredients have been classified as neurotoxins, carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and allergens. Therefore, it’s best to avoid any hand sanitizer with a fragrance, natural or synthetic.
Methanol. Some hand sanitizers from Mexico may contain methanol, also known as wood alcohol. Methanol can be toxic when ingested or absorbed through the skin. When methanol is broken down in the body, formaldehyde and formic acid are produced, which can be deadly.
Phthalates. These colorless, odorless chemicals have been associated with autism spectrum disorders, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, and other health problems. Phthalates also help fragrances last longer in products. Manufacturers rarely list phthalates on labels, but if you see DBP, DEP, DEHP, BzBP, or DMP, you’ll know they’re there. The best tip is to avoid all phthalates as much as possible.
Parabens. Parabens are a variety of antimicrobial and preservatives that can be found in a wide range of cosmetics, foods, and personal care items. Their job is to stop the growth of fungus and bacteria in items, including creative toys, parabens are associated with health risks, including hormone disruption, reproductive problems, neurotoxicity, skin irritation, and cancer. Be sure to check labels for the word “paraben” and its different variations on the label.
Nontoxic hand sanitizers
Washing your hands with hot water and soap for at least 20 seconds is still the recommended way to fight germs. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has proclaimed that there’s no evidence that hand sanitizers are more effective than soap and warm water. Some research even suggests hand sanitizers may actually increase the number of bacteria on your hands.
However, when soap and water hand washing isn’t possible, here are three nontoxic hand sanitizers you can try. Note that all three contain alcohol, but since the major concern about alcohol is ingestion by children, parents are urged to keep the products away from children who may try to ingest them. All three also get top ratings from the Environmental Working Group.
- Pipette. This hand sanitizer gets stellar ratings from the Environmental Working Group when it comes to cancer risk, developmental and reproductive toxicity, use restrictions, absorption, irritation, allergies, and immunotoxicity.
- Elyptol Hand Sanitizer gels and sprays. These products are made without triclosan, parabens, synthetic fragrances, chlorine, petrochemicals, or most common allergens.
- Everyone Hand Sanitizer. This product contains an essential oil as a fragrance, so if you are sensitive to essential oils, it is probably best avoided.
Hand sanitizers can have a role in helping support the fight against disease-causing microorganisms. However, you should be aware of the ingredients in any sanitizing products you buy. Washing with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds is still highly recommended as a way to ward off germs. When you can't wash your hands have a safe hand-sanitizing product available.
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Annmarie Skin Care. 7 reasons why you should avoid hand sanitizers. 2019 Jun 24
Environmental Working Group. Hand sanitizer products.
Mele C. FDA warns of potentially toxic hand sanitizers. The New York Times Company 2020 Jun 22
Food and Drug Administration. FDA issues final rule on safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps. 2016 Sep 2
Force of Nature. Non-toxic product guides: how to choose a non-toxic hand sanitizer (& 3 of our faves!)