Health/Fitness » Health

Health Risks of Hand Sanitizers and Soaps

by Kent McGroarty
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Feb 12, 2010

Hand sanitizers seem such a quick and logical fix to disinfect hands, but when used on a regular basis or improperly they can cause adverse health effects. Health experts recommend washing hands with soap and water whenever possible, but even commercial hand soaps are full of toxic chemicals. Using vegetable-based soaps is the healthiest and safest way to keep hands clean and free of germs. Read on to find out why hand sanitizers and commercial soaps can be harmful to health.

Hand sanitizers are made with potent toxic chemicals for the purpose of killing germs. The majority of hand sanitizers contain 60-90% of either ethyl or isopropyl alcohol, a concentration much higher than what is found in most hard liquors! Therefore, even small doses of sanitizer, when ingested, can cause headaches, dizziness, and slurred speech. Extreme cases of hand sanitizer poisoning include brain damage and death. Hand sanitizer poisoning is most common among children who are drawn to the bright colors and sweet scents. Children who ingest even a small amount of hand sanitizer can become intoxicated and be at risk for alcohol poisoning. Parents should teach children to keep hands out of mouths, eyes, ears, and noses when out in public such as at school, at the store, at a friend's house and so on, and to wash hands immediately upon arriving home as well as frequently as possible. Parents themselves should be models of frequent hand washing as well as doing so for their own health. But, teaching children to keep hands out of mouths is especially important if children use sanitizers at school, at home, at friends', and so on. It's also important to keep hand sanitizers out of children's reach as with any other chemical.

Since hand sanitizers contain a high amount of alcohol they are also highly flammable. Small quantities of hand sanitizer burn "very hot, very quickly" if set on fire. Keep sanitizers out of the hot sun, cars overheated by the sun, and away from incandescent light bulbs and heaters. Should you choose to use hand sanitizers when cooking or grilling make sure hands are completely dry before getting near a hot stove or grill!

It is important to note that the Norovirus, or stomach flu, is resistant to many commercial disinfectants, including the majority of hand sanitizers available! Furthermore, due to their high alcohol content, sanitizers can cause dry skin, which in turn means skin can become cracked and broken. Broken skin exposes the body to "the same contagions hand sanitizers are trying to prevent." Do not use sanitizers if you have any open cuts and scrapes on your hands, including hangnails and paper cuts. Sanitizers can irritate cuts and scrapes, which can cause infection, burning, itching, and rashes. Health experts discourage the biting of fingernails or any touching of the mouth and lips with hands after using sanitizers.

Another problem with hand sanitizers is that they may not leave hands completely clean after use. Should hands be visibly dirty or have dirt under the fingernails hand sanitizers will not be very effective. Hand sanitizers are not a replacement for using soap and water, especially if the body is fighting illness. Sanitizers will not clean hands if hands are greasy, wet, or are covered with food residue.

Since hand sanitizers provide an instant solution for disinfecting hands, it's been reported that people could use them as a substitute for regular hand washing. In fact, this can lead to consistently unclean hands which mean the spreading of germs is more likely, as is contracting illnesses via bacteria and viruses.

Commercial hand soaps are not necessarily a better solution to the problems presented by hand sanitizers. The majority of commercial soaps and cleansers on store shelves are made "from a variety of combined chemicals." Chemicals commonly found in commercial soaps include Sodium Laurel Sulfate, A-terpineol, Benzaldehyde, Triclosan, Benzyl Acetate, and Linalool. Sodium Laurel Sulfate is a foaming agent derived from coconut oil that is used in brake fluid, antifreeze, toothpaste, and shampoo as well as soap. It is very drying and a proven skin irritant that is possibly carcinogenic. Benzyl Acetate is a known carcinogen associated with pancreatic cancer and is irritating to the lungs and eyes. Benzalydehyde and Linalool are both narcotics. Benzaldehyde depresses the central nervous system while Linalool can damage both motor activity and respiratory function. A-terpineol can cause edema and respiratory problems if exposure, especially inhalation, is prolonged. It is also very irritating to the mucus membranes. Triclosan is a "bactericide and mutagen readily absorbed through the skin" that is also irritating to the eyes and has been linked to liver damage. Overuse of chemical antibacterials like triclosan has created a "widespread problem" of mutated bacteria able to resist harsh chemicals.

Colors added to soaps, such as Blue Aluminum Lake 1 and 2, Red No. 19, and Yellow No. 8, are potential carcinogens as well as teratogens. "Teratogen" means the substance, along with any dangerous properties, can pass through the placenta to the unborn child.

Using natural, vegetable oil-based soaps is the safest alternative to hand sanitizers and commercial soaps. Such soaps contain canola, olive, soya, or coconut oil as opposed to animal products and do not contain any synthetic dyes, perfumes, or fragrances. Avoid using hand sanitizers whenever possible. If hand sanitizers must be used a dime-size amount is all that is required. More than that may not evaporate quickly enough and could be licked off fingers and palms. Use a foaming formula that dries quickly, and supervise children who use sanitizer to make sure they rub hands completely dry. Buy it in small bottles and try to limit use as much as possible. Your best bet, however, is to give hands a long, thorough scrub (20 seconds is recommended) with vegetable oil-based soaps for cleaner, less germy hands. Another idea that's also free? If unable to wash hands, rub them together to create friction, which in turn, creates heat that kills germs!

Kent McGroarty is a freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor to EDGE’S Style, Travel, Health, and Fitness channels. Contact her at


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