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Is Hand Sanitizer Bad For You?



Short answer

Hand sanitizers are effective against many germs but have limitations. Alcohol-based options (60-95% concentration) are best, while non-alcohol ones may be less effective against some pathogens. They don't eliminate all germs, are less effective on dirty hands, and can cause skin irritation or allergies. They're a convenient supplement to handwashing, not a replacement.



Long answer

Effectiveness of Hand Sanitizer Against Germs

Hand sanitizers have become a ubiquitous part of our hygiene routine, especially in the wake of global health concerns. Their effectiveness against germs is proven, but with nuances worth understanding to maximize their benefits. Let’s explore the key points that underscore the efficacy of hand sanitizers and how they can be a powerful ally in your hygiene arsenal.

First, it’s important to note that hand sanitizers are generally very effective at killing many types of germs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60% and 95% can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations.

Performance against various pathogens:

  • Alcohol-based sanitizers: These are effective at inactivating many types of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and some fungi, when used correctly.
  • Non-alcohol-based sanitizers: Products containing benzalkonium chloride have antimicrobial properties. However, they may be less reliable against certain bacteria and viruses compared to alcohol-based options.


  • Sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. For example, norovirus, Clostridium difficile, and certain parasites are more resistant to hand sanitizers.
  • They are less effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy, as physical debris can protect germs from the sanitizing agent.
  • Some hand sanitizers may merely reduce the growth of germs rather than kill them outright.

Proper usage for maximum effectiveness:

  1. Apply the product to the palm of one hand (read the label for the correct amount).
  2. Rub your hands together, covering all surfaces, until they are dry.
  3. Do not rinse or wipe off the hand sanitizer before it’s dry; it may not work as well against germs.

A study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases indicates that proper hand sanitizer use can reduce the transmission of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. However, it's essential to use them as part of a comprehensive hand hygiene program, which includes regular handwashing with soap and water.

Finally, remember that hand sanitizers are a convenient tool, but they should not be considered a complete substitute for traditional handwashing. Soap and water remain the gold standard for removing certain types of germs, especially when hands are visibly soiled. Think of hand sanitizer like a trusty sidekick—it’s there when you need it in a pinch, but it complements, rather than replaces, the superhero powers of soap and water.

Potential Skin Irritation and Allergies from Hand Sanitizer Use

Regular use of hand sanitizer can be a double-edged sword. While it's excellent for killing germs and reducing the spread of illness, some individuals may experience skin irritation or allergic reactions. The culprits behind these reactions are often the active and inactive ingredients found in hand sanitizers.

Alcohol, typically either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol, is the main active ingredient in many hand sanitizers. Its purpose is to effectively neutralize various pathogens. Although quite effective, alcohol can be drying to the skin, particularly with high frequency of use. Dryness caused by alcohol can lead to irritation, cracking, and in some cases, dermatitis.

Other ingredients, such as fragrances and preservatives, can also cause allergic reactions for some users. Fragrances are a common cause of contact dermatitis, a type of eczema triggered by contact with a specific substance. Preservatives are necessary to prevent microbial growth within the product, but can be allergenic or irritating to sensitive skin.

Here's a breakdown of the potential skin-related side effects from hand sanitizer use:

  • Dryness: Due to high alcohol content, the skin may lose moisture leading to dry, chapped hands.
  • Eczema or Dermatitis: Repeated exposure to the harsh chemicals can disrupt the skin barrier, leading to eczema or dermatitis.
  • Allergic Reactions: Ingredients like fragrances and preservatives can trigger allergic reactions, such as redness, itching, and rashes.
  • Cracking and Bleeding: Severely dry skin may crack, which can lead to open wounds and increase the risk of infection.

According to The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, certain compounds in hand sanitizers, like quaternary ammonium derivatives and ethylhexylglycerin, can trigger allergy-related contact dermatitis in predisposed individuals. It is important to be aware of these potential allergens when selecting a hand sanitizer, particularly if you have known sensitivities.

To mitigate the risk of skin irritation and allergic reactions, consider the following tips:

  • Choose hand sanitizers without fragrances and dyes.
  • Opt for hand sanitizers with added moisturizers like glycerin or aloe vera.
  • Limit the use of hand sanitizers by washing with soap and water when available, which is less harsh on the skin.
  • After using hand sanitizer, apply a fragrance-free moisturizer to restore hydration in your hands.
  • If you have a known allergy, review the ingredients list carefully before use.
  • Seek the advice of a healthcare professional or dermatologist if irritation or allergic reactions persist.

Remember, while hand hygiene is essential, it's equally important to take care of your skin's health. Strike a balance between safeguarding against germs and maintaining your skin's moisture barrier. If symptoms of skin irritation or allergic reactions occur and become troublesome, it may be time to consult with a healthcare provider to discuss alternative hand sanitizing options or additional skin care measures.

The Dangers of Triclosan and Other Disinfectants in Hand Sanitizers

It's no surprise that cleanliness is paramount, especially when there's no sink and soap in sight. Hand sanitizers have become common companions in our bags and pockets, providing a convenient solution to bacteria and germs we encounter. However, it's crucial to understand that not all hand sanitizers are created equal. Some contain chemicals like triclosan, which have come under scrutiny for their potential health risks.

Understanding Triclosan

Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent found in many consumer products, including hand sanitizers. It was initially embraced for its ability to prevent bacterial contamination but has raised concerns over its safety and efficacy in recent years:

  • A study published by the National Institutes of Health suggests that triclosan can affect hormone regulation in animals.
  • The FDA has reported that some research shows triclosan could also contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, with implications for human health.
  • Environmental concerns have been raised, as triclosan can persist in the environment and may harm aquatic life after it's washed down drains.

Impact on Human Health

Let's dive a bit deeper into how triclosan and similar disinfectants in hand sanitizers might impact human health:

  • Skin Irritation: For some individuals, repeated use of hand sanitizers containing triclosan can lead to skin irritation or contact dermatitis.
  • Hormonal Effects: Studies indicate potential endocrine-disrupting effects, particularly with prolonged exposure.
  • Antibiotic Resistance: Continued use of triclosan may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs, a significant concern in the medical community.
  • Environmental Impact: When considering overall wellness, it's essential to recognize the impact of triclosan on the environment, which ultimately affects public health.

Given these concerns, it's advisable to choose hand sanitizers that are free of triclosan. Thankfully, in 2016, the FDA issued a final rule banning triclosan in over-the-counter antiseptic soaps. However, some sanitizers may still contain this ingredient or similar disinfectants.

Alternative Ingredients in Hand Sanitizers

To sidestep the risks associated with triclosan, you can opt for hand sanitizers with different active ingredients, such as:

  • Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol): An effective germicide that is recognized as safe for use in hand sanitizers by the FDA when used in appropriate concentrations.
  • Isopropanol (Isopropyl Alcohol): Similar to ethanol, it is an effective disinfectant at proper concentrations.
  • Benzalkonium Chloride: A non-alcohol-based active ingredient that's an option for those with sensitivity to alcohol-based products.

When choosing a hand sanitizer, consider checking the ingredient list to ensure that you are using a product that promotes health without unnecessary risks.

Recommendations for Safe Use

Here's how you can use hand sanitizers effectively while minimizing potential dangers:

  • Opt for alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content as recommended by the CDC.
  • Avoid hand sanitizers with harmful additives like triclosan, especially if you have sensitive skin or health concerns related to hormones.
  • Use hand sanitizers sparingly. When possible, wash your hands with soap and water, which is the most effective and safest method to clean hands.
  • Store hand sanitizers out of reach of children and monitor their use to prevent ingestion, which can be harmful.

In conclusion, while hand sanitizers are a convenient option, it's crucial to choose products without potentially harmful ingredients like triclosan. By being an informed consumer and opting for safer alternatives, you can ensure that your hand hygiene routine supports your overall health and well-being.

Alcohol Poisoning Risk from Hand Sanitizer Ingestion

Ingesting hand sanitizer can lead to alcohol poisoning, a serious and potentially deadly condition. This risk is especially pronounced in children, but it can affect individuals of all ages if enough is ingested. The primary ingredient in most hand sanitizers that poses this risk is ethanol or isopropanol, types of alcohol that are effectively intoxicants. The concentration of alcohol in hand sanitizers can be as high as 60 to 95 percent, which is significantly higher than most alcoholic beverages.

When considering the risk of alcohol poisoning from hand sanitizer, it's important to understand how much is dangerous. A small lick from a hand won't usually cause harm, but ingesting more than a tiny amount can be hazardous. To contextualize, consuming as little as a couple of squirts can be enough for alcohol poisoning in children, due to their smaller body mass and lower tolerance for alcohol.

  • Recognizing the Symptoms: Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include confusion, vomiting, seizures, slow breathing, blue-tinged or pale skin, low body temperature, and unconsciousness. In severe cases, it can lead to coma or death.
  • Treatment: If ingestion occurs, it’s critical to seek immediate medical attention. Treatment may involve supportive care, fluids to prevent dehydration, and in some cases, the use of activated charcoal to absorb the alcohol.
  • Prevention: To prevent the risk of alcohol poisoning, hand sanitizers should be used as directed and stored out of the reach of children. Always supervise the use of hand sanitizer with young children and educate older children about the dangers of ingestion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Association of Poison Control Centers have issued warnings regarding the ingestion of hand sanitizers, noting an uptick in accidental poisonings, particularly among children. When using hand sanitizers, they recommend parents and caregivers to apply the product to children's hands, ensuring proper use and preventing accidental ingestion.

In response to this issue, some manufacturers have incorporated bitter-tasting compounds into their products, which serve as a deterrent for ingestion. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also discourages people from making their own hand sanitizer due to the risk of improper formulation, which can either be ineffective or dangerously potent.

As a practical note for adults, it’s also worth mentioning that while hand sanitizer ingestion is harmful, it’s also important not to mistake hand sanitizers for drinkable products. In moments of distraction or during busy times, such mix-ups, though rare, can have serious consequences. Ensuring that hand sanitizer bottles are distinctly marked and kept separate from similar-looking beverage containers can help prevent this type of accident.

In summary, responsible use and storage of hand sanitizer are key to avoiding the risks of alcohol poisoning. By understanding that these products are for external use only and recognizing the symptoms of ingestion, you can create a safe environment for everyone.

Hand Sanitizer versus Soap and Water: The Healthier Choice

The choice between hand sanitizer and soap and water may seem trivial, but it carries significant implications for your health and well-being. While both methods aim to cleanse and reduce germs on your hands, understanding the circumstances where each is most effective can make a world of difference.

Cleansing Efficacy
Soap and water are traditionally the gold standard when it comes to cleaning your hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), washing hands with soap and water is generally more effective at removing certain kinds of germs, including norovirus and Clostridium difficile. It's also the preferred method for cleaning hands that are visibly dirty or greasy. The mechanical action of scrubbing with soap and water can physically remove dirt, debris, and pathogens from skin.

Convenience and Accessibility
On the flip side, hand sanitizers are praised for their convenience and accessibility. Comprising mainly of alcohol, which is effective at killing many types of bacteria and viruses, hand sanitizer can swiftly reduce the number of germs on the hands. Given that it's portable and doesn't require water, hand sanitizer is a great on-the-go option, especially when soap and water aren't immediately available.

Alcohol Content and Effectiveness
The effectiveness of hand sanitizers largely depends on their alcohol content. The CDC recommends using hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol for maximum germ-killing ability. It's crucial to note, however, that hand sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs, and they are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

Skin Health Concerns
Regarding skin health, frequent use of hand sanitizers, particularly those with high alcohol content, can lead to skin dryness or irritation. Some formulations include moisturizers to mitigate this effect, but it's essential to monitor your skin's reaction to these products. In contrast, using soap and water can be less harsh, especially if you opt for soap containing moisturizers or those designed for sensitive skin.

Potential for Misuse
There's also the potential for misuse with hand sanitizers. Inadequate application—using too little product or not covering all surfaces of the hands—can lead to reduced efficacy. Moreover, hand sanitizers can be a risk in homes with young children due to the possibility of accidental ingestion. Soap and water do not pose such risks when used properly.

Environmental Factors
From an environmental standpoint, the ingredients in soap and water typically have a lower ecological footprint compared to the production and disposal of plastic hand sanitizer bottles. However, water conservation is another factor to consider when opting for traditional handwashing methods.

In conclusion, both hand sanitizer and soap and water have their place in our hygiene routines. The choice between the two might hinge on the situation at hand, your access to facilities, and personal skin sensitivities. Understanding the context and using each method correctly will best support your health and promote a hygienic lifestyle.

Environmental Impact of Hand Sanitizer Ingredients and Packaging

While hand sanitizers play a critical role in maintaining hygiene and reducing the spread of pathogens, they come with their own environmental concerns. Here, we'll explore the various ways in which the ingredients and packaging of hand sanitizers can affect the environment.

Ingredients and Ecosystems

Most conventional hand sanitizers contain ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol as the main active ingredient. The production of these alcohols often relies on agricultural commodities like corn or sugar cane, which can contribute to large-scale farming practices that may lead to deforestation, soil depletion, and water contamination. When these alcohols find their way into waterways, they can disrupt aquatic ecosystems due to their toxic effects on fish and other wildlife.

Another commonly used ingredient is triclosan, an antibacterial agent that has been scrutinized for its environmental impact. Research has shown that triclosan can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and may interfere with algae's ability to perform photosynthesis. Its persistence in the environment is particularly troubling, as it tends to accumulate over time.

Microplastics and Marine Life

Some hand sanitizers include microplastics for texture or abrasive properties. These tiny particles are not biodegradable and are known to pollute oceans and other water bodies, where they are ingested by marine life, causing injury or death. Furthermore, as these microplastics climb up the food chain, they pose indirect risks to human health as well.

Packaging and Waste

The majority of hand sanitizers are sold in single-use plastic bottles, which contribute significantly to plastic waste. Plastics can take centuries to decompose, and during that time they can release harmful chemicals into the soil and water. Recycling rates for these plastics remain low, adding to the environmental burden.

To mitigate these impacts, consumers can opt for hand sanitizers that:

  • Are sold in recyclable packaging or use materials with a lower environmental footprint.
  • Do not contain triclosan or other ecologically harmful chemicals.
  • Are free from microplastics.
  • Offer refillable options to decrease single-use plastic consumption.

Regulations and Certifications

Governing bodies and ecological certifications play a significant role in regulating the environmental impact of hand sanitizers. Look for products that have eco-labels or certifications indicating they meet certain environmental standards regarding their ingredients and packaging.

For those who prioritize eco-friendliness, it is worth exploring the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database or seeking products with certifications from organizations such as EcoCert or the Environmental Protection Agency's Safer Choice program. These resources help consumers identify hand sanitizers that are not only effective but also environmentally responsible.

In conclusion, while the environmental impact of hand sanitizer ingredients and packaging is a concern, being an informed consumer can help mitigate these issues. By choosing products that are eco-conscious and by advocating for better environmental practices in manufacturing, we can contribute to a healthier planet while still keeping those pesky germs at bay.

Frequently asked questions

The CDC recommends using alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol content to effectively inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19. While alcohol-free sanitizers can reduce some microbes, they are generally not as effective against coronavirus as alcohol-based formulations.

There is no evidence to suggest that the use of hand sanitizers weakens the immune system. Proper hygiene helps to prevent disease-causing germs from spreading, but it doesn't completely eliminate harmless or beneficial microorganisms we encounter in daily life that help build immune resilience.

For those with sensitive skin, look for hand sanitizers that are fragrance-free and dye-free. Opt for products containing moisturizers like glycerin or aloe vera to help mitigate dryness. Always patch test a new sanitizer on a small skin area to check for any reactions.

Handwashing with soap and water is more effective than hand sanitizer at removing substances like pesticides and heavy metals. The mechanical action of lathering with soap and scrubbing under running water helps to lift and wash away these contaminants from the skin.

Ask a question about Hand Sanitizer and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • dryness
  • eczema or dermatitis
  • allergic reactions
  • cracking and bleeding
  • skin irritation
  • hormonal effects
  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • slow breathing
  • blue-tinged or pale skin
  • low body temperature
  • unconsciousness

Possible long-term side effects

  • hormonal effects
  • antibiotic resistance
  • environmental impact

Ingredients to be aware of

  • alcohol
  • benzalkonium chloride
  • fragrances
  • preservatives
  • triclosan
  • quaternary ammonium derivatives
  • ethylhexylglycerin


  • reduces microbe count
  • reduces transmission of infections
  • effective against many pathogens

Healthier alternatives

  • soap and water
  • fragrance-free moisturizers
  • hand sanitizers without fragrances and dyes
  • alcohol-based sanitizers with added moisturizers
  • eco-friendly certified sanitizers

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 12-14-2023

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Desmond Richard
Published on: 12-14-2023

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