Hand Sanitizers: Good, Bad, Ugly?

July 9, 2008

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I remember when my oldest was just a newborn – a friend of mine also had an infant son. Whenever she took him out and about, she would just FREAK if anyone touched his hands. Then …. she would whip out the hand sanitizer and squirt it on his chubby little digits.

At the time it made me cringe inside, but I didn’t know what I now know about hand sanitizers and how dangerous they can be. Especially for a tiny infant whose hands go into his mouth!

Are Hand Sanitizers Healthy?

When I was a kid, my parents taught me to wash my hands before I sat down to a meal. It’s when I’m eating dinner at their house that I realize that modern parents (myself included!) often forget this old fashioned but essential habit. Grandma instinctively knew that good old fashioned soap and water was the best way of preventing germs from spreading around.
hand sanitizer alternatives
Creative Commons License photo credit: SMercury98
In the last few years all kinds of sanitizing products have come on the market that promise to kill even more germs and prevent the spread of even more disease in your house.

But, these chemicals are no more effective – and much less safe for your family than the old standby, soap and water.

One concern when it comes to hand sanitizer safety is the alcohol content. For a sanitizer to be effective against germs, it should contain at least 60% alcohol. (As a comparison, hard liquor is usually about 40%.) If your child get into the hand sanitizer, it only takes a small amount to bring their blood alcohol content to dangerous levels. Since we aren’t exactly as cautious with hand sanitizers as we are about dangerous household chemicals (I bet your liquor cabinet is locked or otherwise inaccessable to the kids, no?), the danger is there that our child will get into our purse and eat the stuff.

What’s Wrong With Triclosan?

Because of the potential dangers of the alcohol based sanitizers, many companies have put non-alcohol products on the market. However, these are probably even worse. Because of the way they kill bacteria, they can actually cause bacteria to become stronger and more resistant to antibiotics. These types contain Triclosan, which is highly toxic and can even lead to burns. I read a story in Parents magazine about a young girl who rubbed a hand sanitizer gel on her face and ended up in the hospital with second degree burns – due to the Triclosan.

Triclosan is considered a pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency. Wait a second – aren’t we warned constantly not to expose our kids to pesticides? Triclosan can lead to nasty yeast infections of the fingernails. These are very hard to get rid of and unpleasant to say the least. According to this website, the FDA held hearings in 2005 and came to the conclusion that all these antibacterial soaps are ineffective anyway!

Natural Alternatives to Hand Sanitizers

The convenience of hand sanitizers is the draw for busy parents of course – when we’re out and about it’s not always easy to get the kids to running water and soap. There are a couple of ways of getting around this.

During my cloth diapering days (not that far behind me!), if I knew I was going to be away from the house for several hours, I often carried a waterproof, zipper pouch (you could also use a plastic ziploc bag) with a couple of baby washcloths in it. I would wet these well and wring them out, and sprinkle a couple of drops of essential oil on them. I would use the washcloth to clean my hands when I had to perform a diaper change in the car and couldn’t easily get to soap and water.

Keeping a stash of wet washcloths like this in your car would be one way to clean grubby hands, and the essential oils would provide some germ killing. You could also try your hand at making your own hand sanitizing gel. This recipe looks pretty safe.

Some companies have been quick to realize the dangers of conventional hand sanitizers and have come up with their own safer alternatives.

I came across this one at Target one day and was impressed with it. It smells nice, instead of that sharp alcohol smell of the conventional ones. Those give me a headache if someone uses them around me, but this one doesn’t.

Cleanwell’s All Natural Hand Sanitizer Spray – this one uses an essential oil blend to kill germs. It’s antibacterial and alcohol and Triclosan free. It’s safe for kids, biodegradable, and certified cruelty-free.

Another, made by Eo Products does contain alcohol, along with other essential oils known for antibacterial properties. So you would need to use it with caution around chidren.

To sum up, I’ll quote my sister (who is raising 4 boys, 3 of whom are young men now):

“Dirt – it gives the immune system a workout!”

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5 Responses to “Hand Sanitizers: Good, Bad, Ugly?”

  1. Nell @ Casual Friday Everyday on July 9th, 2008 9:00 pm

    Thanks for this blog post. I can’t believe someone would use that on a newborn hands! We almost always just use soap and water but I am going to check out the recommended product.

  2. Alaina Frederick on July 11th, 2008 7:58 am

    Another great option that we use and LOVE it is Hands2Go. They have a great foaming or a spray option. And soon will have handy wipes. We use the spray to clean of our table while out to eat and the kids just love the foam. The foam works great on rubbing down shopping carts when you forget your cover for the kids seat :)

  3. Karen on July 11th, 2008 9:10 am

    That was great info, I didn’t know there were natural alternatives. I also use wipes instead of the sanitizers.

  4. Dr Stu on July 13th, 2008 10:11 am

    And don’ t forget that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are increasingly under fire not just because they’re flammable, but because frequent use actually destroys protective skin cells, including products such as EO.
    Alternative alcohol-free, rinse free, fragrance free (hypoallergenic) products include Soapopular, Target, Wal-Mart and several other chains carry this, and its the #2 hand sanitizer on Amazon.com. Similar to Hands2go in terms of the active ingredient, but Soapopular is more affordable. Recently profiled by Oxygen Magazine , Parent Magazine and Marie Claire…more info is at http://www.soapyusa.com

  5. D. Tarlow on July 9th, 2009 7:52 pm

    Hands2Go contains Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC), which is UNSAFE in any product, especially one for infants. Please see
    http://abetterwaytoclean.com/?p=61 or wikipedia for more information.
    “Increasing use of BAC is a deeply disturbing trend and reflects either a callous indifference or lack of awareness to the growing body of evidence that long term exposure to BAC and related chemicals is associated with significant health risks. These include asthma, chronic dermatitis and other immune system disorders. I urge everyone to consider very carefully before you decide to bring products containing Benzalkonium Chloride into your home.”

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