The craze of antibacterial hand sanitizers is so prevalent in America that it is rare to find a supermarket or department store nowadays that does not have at least one pump readily available on display. Many people also carry a small bottle around with them in their purse or briefcase.
Hand sanitizers were invented in 1966, when Lupe Hernandez, a California Registered Nursing student, figured out how to deliver alcohol through a gel to provide an instant hand-cleaning experience. The use of these products caught on in the 1990s, and has since spread like wildfire.
Having hand sanitizer on hand makes people feel safe – as they can disinfect at a moment’s notice. However, these products, especially when used often, may be doing us more harm than good.
They may contribute to antibiotic resistance
One common ingredient in hand sanitizers, and most anything labeled “antibacterial,” for that matter, is triclosan. This chemical is actually used as a pesticide, besides being featured commonly in our personal care and household cleaning products.
The principal danger regarding triclosan use is its role in the global epidemic of antibiotic resistance. When we are constantly exposing bacteria to antibacterial agents, they learn to adapt.
When we use products with triclosan on a constant basis, the bacteria that these products are designed to kill end up developing an immunity to it, and sharing this immunity with other types of bacteria through DNA transfer.
Furthermore, triclosan has been linked to estrogen disruption, and is associated with an earlier onset of puberty, along with other potentially harmful hormonal imbalances.
Triclosan has been shown to accumulate in fat tissue, and has been found in human urine, blood and breast milk samples. It is also a hazard to the environment, as it has been discovered to accumulate in lake sediment.
Many are loaded with chemical fragrances
Scented hand sanitizers can be especially dangerous, as they often contain chemical fragrances. These fragrance mixes can contain an array of potentially toxic ingredients, many of which are not found on the label, as manufacturers are not required by law to disclose what is in them, and can withhold much of their chemical makeup as a “trade secret.”
These artificial fragrances can be quite irritating to some people, and have been linked to allergies, respiratory ailments, and potential hormonal disruption.
Many contain parabens
A number of hand sanitizer brands contain parabens. These chemical preservatives are added to halt the growth of microorganisms, giving the sanitizer a virtually infinite shelf life.
Quite a bit of research has been performed on parabens in recent years, and they have been linked to a number of potential health concerns including elevated estrogen levels, endocrine disruption, toxicity to the immune, reproductive and nervous systems, and even some hormonally-based cancers.
They may weaken your immune system
Along with potentially contributing to antibiotic resistance, overuse of antibacterial hand sanitizing products can weaken your immune system. There is such a thing as being too clean; when we do not expose our immune systems to the germs around us once in a while, they do not gain experience in dealing with the invading pathogens.
This can leave us more susceptible to allergies, and potentially increase the risk of developing asthma. In young children, these effects are even more pronounced, as their immune systems are still developing and need some exposure to everyday germs in order to become strong.
They may cause dry, cracked skin
Even if a hand sanitizer does not contain triclosan, it is likely alcohol based. While using alcohol-based sanitizer without any other additives sparingly is not terrible for you, when you use it on a regular basis, it can really dry out your skin. Dry, cracked, broken skin is a perfect environment for bacteria and other pathogens to enter your body.
When it comes to hand hygiene, all you need is to wash your hands with good old fashioned soap and water. Organic soap is always best in order to avoid the hundreds of chemical additives that may be present in conventional varieties. However, it is understandable to want something with you to quickly clean up on the go when you can’t get to a sink.
For this situation, a small spray bottle of witch hazel can effectively do the trick, without drying out your skin or introducing harmful chemicals into your system.
Gregg Prescott, M.S.
If you absolutely have to use a hand sanitizer and desire to use a “healthier” version of it with minimal alcohol, you can make your own with a mixture of water, vodka, vegetable glycerin, aloe vera juice and essential oils as shown in this video: