Hand sanitizers are a good alternative to reduce potentially infectious viruses, bacteria, fungus, etc on the hands and skin… but it should really only be put into play if soap and water is not immediately available.
“When used properly, hand sanitizers work by killing some viruses and bacteria with alcohol (ethyl alcohol aka ethanol or isopropyl alcohol),” explains Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, and board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills. “They do not remove physical dirt, grime, mucous, and so, are not meant to physically wash your hands.”
According to Dr. Shainhouse, people who must wash their hands constantly throughout the day (medical professionals; the general public during this pandemic, etc), alcohol-based sanitizers can be used when hands are not physically soiled. However, actual soap and water hand washing is recommended after every few sanitizer uses (perhaps 3-5), in order to remove the sticky gel build-up, and physically remove germs.
That being said, could relying too much on hand sanitizer actually do more harm than good? We reached out to medical experts to get their insights on the effects of using too much hand sanitizer—and let’s just say, you’re better off using old fashioned soap and water whenever possible.
They may cause skin irritation
“The added ingredients in most hand sanitizers can cause skin irritation and potential allergic contact dermatitis, particularly with repeated use on severely dry or cracked skin,” explains Dr. Shainhouse. Some of these non-alcohol potential irritants or allergens include fragrance, essential oils, vitamin E, and preservatives.
They can make us antibiotic-resistant
According to Dr. Lina Velikova, MD, PhD, some hand sanitizers contain triclosan, which can increase our resistance to antibiotics and can further endanger our health and question the effectiveness of treatments we will get if we get sick.
They can contain toxic chemicals
If your hand sanitizer is scented, it is probably loaded with toxic chemicals, says Ajoy Das, health and fitness expert. “Companies are not required to disclose their secret aromatic ingredients and are therefore usually made from dozens of chemicals!”
Synthetic perfumes contain phthalates, which mimics hormones and disrupts the endocrine glands.
They may weaken the immune system
Studies have shown that triclosan can also damage the immune system, which protects your body from disease while researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health have discovered that triclosan can negatively affect human immune function. “Compromising with the immune system can make people more susceptible to allergies and the toxic chemical bisphenol A, found in plastics can be at risk,” explains Das. “Studies show that children and adolescents with high levels of triclosan are more likely to develop hay fever and other allergies.”
They could cause hormonal disturbances
The FDA says research shows that triclosan can cause hormonal disturbances and that bacteria can adapt to its antimicrobial properties, creating more antibiotic-resistant strains. “Animal studies have shown that the compound can alter the way hormones work in the body, raising concerns and ensuring further investigation into how they can affect humans,” explains Das.
They can cause alcohol poisoning (when ingested)
“The active ingredient in some hand sanitizers is generally a type of alcohol that acts as an antimicrobial who kills bacteria,” explains Das. In fact, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control recommend a combination of ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol in order to ensure a hand sanitizer is even effective, which can cause detrimental issues for many people. For example, in March 2012, six teens in California were hospitalized for drinking alcohol derived from hand sanitizer, making it the latest in a string of household products used to induce intoxication.