Is Hand Sanitizer Safe?
Hand Sanitizer Everywhere
Hand sanitizer is as ubiquitous as handbags. It's used in schools, at home, and in the workplace. But did you ever stop to think if it's really all that great? Sure, millions use it. It is proven to reduce the amount of bacteria on the hands, but digging a little deeper, there could be some interesting things going on....
High Amount of Alcohol in Hand Sanitizer
In order to be effective, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Hospitals tend to use sanitizers with even stronger concentrations of alcohol. But, to effectively kill most bacteria, some fungi, and some viruses, the level cannot be below 60%.
A typical little bottle of the stuff has the same amount of ethanol as 4 shots of vodka. Plus, they make it smell good.
So what's to keep a small child from ingesting it?
It's happened before. A little girl went to the emergency room really lethargic and barely responsive. Blood tests showed normal blood counts and she otherwise showed no signs of disease.
No one could figure out what was wrong until the girl's teacher called and said that she had used hand sanitizer on her hands. The other kids in her class said that the little girl licked the sanitizer off of them.
Doctors immediately started treating for alcohol poisoning.
Some schools have started banning the substance from the lower grades. Some parents have started to lock up their sanitizer, letting children use it only under supervision.
But, there were still 12,000 cases of people ingesting hand sanitizer in 2006, according to data from the Poison Control Center.
Sanitizer is just alcohol, right? Wrong.
Sanitizers have other chemicals in them, too.
You hear lots about limiting processed foods, especially those with chemical names you can't pronounce. The same should go for skin. It's the largest organ: it's porous and it absorbs whatever you put on it.
So, just what is benzalkonium chloride? Well, it's really soluble in ethanol and manufacturers often use it in small amounts in hand sanitizers and other antiseptic solutions.
It causes disruption of those lipid bi-layers in cell membranes. That's how it kills the bacteria. But...enzymes in the human body and most organic cells have lipid bi-layers. They are what control how much water, fat and other materials enter the cells.
Add to that, benzalkonium chloride is toxic to mammals if the concentration is high enough. Lower on the food chain, it's toxic to aquatic wildlife and birds, even in small amounts.
I think about how often I use hand sanitizer. Am I inadvertently helping to toxify my environment?
Hand sanitizers often contain fragrances. But, manufacturers aren't required to list exactly what's in those fragrances.
Therein lies the problem.
Fragrances can contain a whole plethora of chemicals.
These are widely used by industries, with a range of applications. In fragrances, they create that oily feel that helps the scent last longer. Anything with a fragrance - hand sanitizers, lotion, hair spray, hair gel, perfume, shampoo, and conditioner - could be a candidate for containing phthalates.
Though they are typically present in small amounts, I have to wonder about the repeated exposure to phthalates. They can hurt cells in the male reproductive tract. They also can potentially make people experience more allergies with more severe reactions, among other things.
I keep hearing stories that the overall human rate of fertility is decreasing (though you may not think so with 7 billion people on the planet). Hmmm.
Remember high school biology and all those animals preserved in it? The smell of formaldehyde is quite distinctive. Fragrances often contain small amounts of this chemical. It is also known to irritate the respiratory tract and the endocrine system in mammals.
In the last couple of decades, triclosan has found its way into soaps, cleaners, toothpastes, and not surprisingly, hand sanitizer, especially non-alcohol-based types.
There are reports that 75% of the US population excretes triclosan in urine because it is so widespread.
The problem with triclosan is that it's antibacterial. On the surface that seems all right, but if you look deeper, it's becoming more associated with bacterial resistance. Thus, we might inadvertently create super-bugs, resistant to antibiotics. Initially, bacteria succumb to triclosan, but there are always a few that are resistant to its effects. Those bacteria are then able to reproduce, despite the triclosan.
It's also associated with being an endocrine-system disruptor. That means human growth and development could be affected by exposure to this particular chemical.
I use hand sanitizers. I am not against them. I am neither a doctor nor a scientist and I haven't personally conducted my own scientific tests to find out everything about these chemicals.
But, I also like to take responsibility for my own health. It's also important to note - again - that other than alcohol and water these chemicals are present in small amounts in hand sanitizers and they are not in every type of sanitizer.
With the prevalence of so many industrial chemicals in water, shampoo, cleaners, and personal hygiene products, I aim to limit my use of hand sanitizers, however. I am not sure how many repeated exposures to these small amounts of chemicals will tip the biological clock to create irregularities in my cellular DNA, but I don't really want to find out.
Do you Regularly Use Hand Sanitizer?
Alternatives to Hand Sanitizers
- Regular soap and water. Generations of people have used regular soap and water to clean their hands and have done just fine with it.
- Use natural products whenever you can.
- Make your own on-the-go hand sanitizer. Get a little bit of dish soap (preferably fragrance and triclosan-free), add water, shake and you have your cleaner. Bring along some napkins and paper towels and you can clean your hands and other objects like toys, car steering-wheels, and anything else you might need to clean on the go.
- Use a hand-sanitizer with completely readable ingredients. That is, ingredients that you can readily identify without being a chemistry major. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Use the Skin Deep Database, and find ingredients that rank as close to "0" as possible (the lower the better).
© 2011 Cynthia Calhoun