When life moves at lightning speed for so many of our families, it’s normal to ask, “What’s the best hand sanitizer?” After all, keeping kiddos germ-free seems like a top priority in the midst of messy meals, soccer games and sandboxes.
Yes, clean hands are important for preventing the spread of disease. However, the answer to germs is not as simple as throwing any old bottle of hand sanitizer spray in your purse. Actually, there are multiple types to consider when you’re looking for the best hand sanitizer — and some of them contain ingredients that are downright frightening for the health of your family.
Fortunately, there are great options to buy (or make) hand sanitizer that can help to kill germs without causing long-term harms. Plus, I want to share some information about why an obsession with sanitation might not be great for you, anyway. Do the words “antimicrobial resistance” ring a bell? What about hormone disruption? They will soon!
So, what is the best hand sanitizer? What types are available for you? Do you need it at all? What hand sanitizer ingredients should you avoid altogether? Let’s break down the answer to these questions, and more.
What is hand sanitizer?
Hand sanitizer was developed as an alternative to soap and water. By using germ-killing and cleansing ingredients that function without water, hand sanitizer can be used to stop the spread of infections by giving you a way to clean your hands when you may not have a sink around.
Other names for hand sanitizer include hand rub and hand antiseptic. You can buy hand sanitizer in foam, gel or liquid form (1).
In 2013, The New Yorker released an article detailing the development of the hand sanitizer you probably saw at least once today while out running an errand. They share the story of the founders of Purell, Goldie and Jerry Lippman, who released the first version of this handy stuff.
The Lippmans began making a waterless hand cleanser in their washing machine, dubbing it “Gojo” and making it available to local auto mechanics and factory workers to help remove grease and grime from their hands. The first few iterations of hand sanitizer weren’t great to use — either your hands would become white or feel overly greasy, according to memories recounted in The New Yorker. In 1988, Gojo Industries released what we know today as Purell, the first residue-free alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Today, these products are found on store shelves in just about every gas station and grocery store, not to mention on the counter of most public establishments. Many of the best hand sanitizers include some kind of moisturizer (emollient) to avoid drying skin out, since they work by removing oil from the top layer of skin (2).
What are the different types?
Like I said above, hand sanitizers come in foam, gel and liquid forms. The soap aisle at your local supermarket likely has an entire section dedicated to your options: travel size hand sanitizer for squashing germs on-the-go, hand sanitizer for kids loaded with friendly-smelling scents (spoiler alert: these scents are not friendly!), hand sanitizer spray, organic hand sanitizer and, of course, standard bottles of liquid hand sanitizer.
Trust me, staring at all these choices can be intimidating. What’s the best hand sanitizer for my family? What if I need moisturizing hand sanitizer? Should I pick a hand sanitizer for sensitive skin?
No need to be overwhelmed. In reality, there are two basic types of hand sanitizer: alcohol-based and alcohol-free. Both of these varieties usually contain ingredients to moisturize skin.
Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer
Purell, the largest brand on the market today, promotes an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. To create an alcohol-based version, manufacturers must use 60-95 percent alcohol. This amount of alcohol “denatures” (read: breaks down and then destroys) proteins and kills bacteria on skin (1,2).
When you have dirt (which is made up of proteins) on your skin, hand sanitizer is less effective. But when you use sanitizer with enough alcohol, the alcohol can not only kill bacteria but break down the protein structures that might stop it from working, too.
If you’re looking for the best hand sanitizer, I will always recommend one that uses not only organic alcohol but also organic, antibacterial essential oils. More on that below!
The most potent way to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill germs, though, is by using it only on hands free of dirt — whatever alcohol goes to breaking down proteins in organic matter like dirt doesn’t go to killing germs. This is why it can be a good idea to wipe hands with a baby wipe to remove excess dirt before using the hand sanitizer.
Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizer
Instead of alcohol, some hand sanitizers use disinfecting agents or antibacterial chemicals to effectively get rid of bacteria. These chemicals include things with slightly menacing names, such as benzalkonium chloride (BAC) and triclosan. Unlike alcohol, these types of ingredients kill bacteria immediately and stick around on the skin, eliminating microbes you may come into contact with after cleaning your hands.
The chemicals used in alcohol-free hand sanitizers are not good for you. I’ll cover the specific dangers in more detail, but BAC and triclosan have very concerning side effects and potential health dangers.
Is it effective?
If we’re all spending money on hand sanitizers to keep in our purses, gym bags, store counters and bathrooms, then the million dollar question has to be: Does hand sanitizer work?
Well, sort of…sometimes.
Plus, the answer to that question really depends on what result you’re hoping for — and how you use hand sanitizer.
Let’s start at the beginning. The most useful place for a bottle of hand sanitizer is in places where people don’t use soap and water enough and/or where germs are more likely to lurk, like hospitals or daycare centers. In particular, when kids are given access to hand sanitizer throughout the day, some studies have found that less of them miss school due to infection (3,4).
The same is true in the workplace. A controlled study with 134 participants who had not previously used hand sanitizer at work discovered that infection-related symptoms (common cold, fever, cough and diarrhea) happened less often when people started regularly using it (5).
But how and how often you use sanitizers is what causes even the best hand sanitizer to not work well (or to be super useful!). For instance, if you start out with a bunch of dirt on your hands, most sanitizers won’t really kill most of the germs chilling out on your hands.
On the other hand (or hands, if you will), using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer for thirty seconds on clean (not soiled) hands, then allowing them to air dry, can increase hand sanitizer effectiveness. Does hand sanitizer kill bacteria? In this case, it can kill not only bacteria, but certain fungi and specific types of viruses.
Hand sanitizer isn’t effective against all viruses, just those known as “enveloped viruses.” Influenza A, a virus that causes some cases of the flu, often dies away when exposed to hand sanitizer. But norovirus, a nonenveloped virus and the most common cause of nausea and diarrhea, is pretty unaffected by both alcohol-based and alcohol-free hand sanitizers. That also goes for bacterial spores and most parasites (1).
Hand sanitizer is also unlikely to be “effective,” in terms of preventing infection or bacterial illness, if you use it only once in a long while or if you use it constantly instead of just washing your hands with plain soap and water.
Seems a little backwards, right?
Many major organizations recommend using hand sanitizer only when soap and water is not available and only when you’ve risked higher-than-normal exposure to bacteria. Visited a friend in the hospital? Picked up your child from a packed daycare or school and rushing to dinner? That’s the kind of time you can likely benefit the most from a hand sanitizer.
Even then, not every hand sanitizer is worth the risk.
What are the dangers?
Sure, getting the flu or another bacterial infection can be incredibly inconvenient and even potentially fatal for some people, like very young children, the elderly or people with compromised immune systems. However, is hand sanitizer bad for you, too? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
First off, let me say that the best hand sanitizer is not bad for you when used thoughtfully. Getting rid of bacteria in some situations can be helpful, and certain ingredients accomplish this without putting other parts of your health in danger.
Unfortunately, there are some very unsavory things in certain brands of sanitizer that carry too much risk for their reward, in my opinion.
Let’s take a look at some of the most apparent dangers of conventional hand sanitizer.
1. Triclosan: Endocrine Disruptor and Disease Promoter
I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but I don’t always take the word of major organizations as gospel when it comes to personal health. So, when I saw that the FDA had warned consumers about the dangers of a chemical in antibacterial hand soaps and hand sanitizers, I took notice.
In their words, “Animal studies have shown that triclosan alters the way some hormones work in the body and raises potential concerns for the effects of use in humans. We don’t yet know how triclosan affects humans and more research is needed (6).”
As public organizations like this have been very slow to recognize endocrine disruptors in personal care and other household products, that’s a big deal!
Let’s back up a moment, though. What is an endocrine disruptor, and why does it matter if you’re exposed to one of these, like triclosan?
A simple definition for an endocrine or hormone disruptor would be any kind of substance that isn’t part of your natural endocrine system but acts like (mimics) a hormone like estrogens, androgens and thyroid hormones.
Long-term effects of chemicals like this aren’t yet well-understood, but there is some evidence that they might mess with fertility or increase your chances of developing hormone-related diseases, including endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid disease and cervical cancer (7,8,9).
Your endocrine system gets “confused” when hormone disruptors continually bind to hormone receptors on cells in your body. Persistent exposure to these substances that seem like hormones can boost, lower or change the amount of a specific type of hormone you naturally produce (7).
BPA (bisphenol A), an ingredient in a lot of plastics, is one of the most infamous endocrine disruptors, but triclosan is also very high on the list. Specifically, triclosan is a xenoestrogen, meaning it’s an endocrine disruptor that acts like estrogen.
What happens when women and men are exposed to xenoestrogens? Estrogen dominance.
See, while proper levels of estrogen are necessary to overall reproductive and developmental health, too much of it can cause all kinds of problems. Just a few of the more concerning symptoms of estrogen dominance include insomnia, depression, low sex drive (libido), heavy bleeding, irregular/abnormal periods, breast tenderness, allergies, hair loss, accelerated aging, autoimmune disorders, infertility, endometriosis, ovarian cysts and more (10,11).
Sound awful? I agree.
The worst part here is that the people at the highest risk are the very people who may end up using hand sanitizers the most!
Triclosan is found in the blood of about 75 percent of people in the US and typically at its highest levels during a person’s thirties…and the higher your income, the more like you’ve got triclosan circulating. Women usually accumulate more triclosan, probably because of the number of beauty products it’s used to make (12).
That sounds a whole lot like many people I know trying to have kids — and babies are extremely sensitive to hormone disruptors!
In fact, infants and babies can be exposed to triclosan while nursing (13).
Specifically, research has found triclosan to be associated with the following conditions, symptoms and health concerns (14,15):
- Food sensitivities
- Poor heart function
- Endocrine disruption
- Poor fetal development
- Birth defects
- Decreased sperm count
- Thyroid disease
- Cognitive impairment (in children whose mothers have high levels of triclosan)
- Disruption of the gut microbiome
- DNA alteration
- Nutrient absorption (calcium and zinc)
At this point, I hope you see why triclosan in hand sanitizer is one of the major hand sanitizer dangers. However, just in case you’re still on the fence…
The FDA’s warning in 2016 confirms that using triclosan in hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps doesn’t actually protect you from disease any better than just using soap and water (6).
Avoid triclosan as much as possible! You’ll find it most often in antibacterial soaps, alcohol-free hand sanitizers and even toothpastes. The best hand sanitizers use alcohol, not other antibacterial chemicals.
2. Synthetic Fragrance: Cancer, Allergies, Birth Defects and Asthma
The use of synthetic fragrance chemicals in makeup, household products and personal hygiene items has concerned me for a long time. And the more research that comes out about what these dangerous chemicals can do to our bodies, the more I believe it’s important to get these out of your house for good.
According to Dr. Josh Axe, “Synthetic scents or “fragrance” represent an unidentified mixture of ingredients including carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals and environmental toxicants. (16)”
Have you gotten really good at reading labels to make sure you’re not exposing yourself or your family to anything dangerous? Unfortunately, that’s not going to help you with synthetic fragrances. The FDA currently has no set requirements for manufacturers to list these scents and their sources on a label — typically, the word “fragrance” on the ingredient list is enough (17).
You may also notice that the potential problems associated with synthetic fragrances sometimes overlap with the dangers of triclosan.
Fragrances like these could potentially cause or increase the risk for (17,18,19,20,21):
- Hormone disruption
- Childhood developmental problems
- Lung/respiratory system damage
- Red blood cell mutation
- Eye irritation
- Skin irritation
- Central nervous system disruption
It might be cheaper to make products with synthetic fragrance, but it’s definitely a lot more dangerous. I always suggest opting for the best hand sanitizers scented with organic essential oils, powerful substances for promoting your health without threatening it at the same time, like synthetic fragrance.
When you buy hand sanitizer, only choose options that are either unscented or use essential oils to scent them.
3. Antimicrobial Resistance: Our Obsession With Living Germ-Free
An ad for hand sanitizer might state facts that sound like this: The best hand sanitizer kills 99.9% of bacteria from your hands, and that’s great because it means you’ll get sick less often.
The truth is much more complicated.
Actually, over sanitation (including the overuse of hand sanitizers) is associated with issues in the gut that can actually limit your ability to fight infection over time and contribute to antibiotic resistance (22,23).
The World Health Organization (WHO) names antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today (24).”
Basically, being totally crazy about eliminating all germs is not a good thing. You and your kids need some exposure to the helpful bacteria found in dirt and food because without it, your body doesn’t build up immunity to disease and infection.
In turn, bacteria grow to what many people call “superbugs,” infecting people without hope for receiving any kind of curative treatment. The official term for this is antimicrobial resistance.
The theory behind why this may happen is known as “The Hygiene Hypothesis.” It plays out in the real world as people who live in dirtier environments typically have stronger immune systems, less allergies and less risk for asthma (25).
Over sanitation may also be one reason behind the rise in learning disabilities, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, leaky gut syndrome, autoimmunity and nutrient deficiencies (26,27,28).
Does it pay off to use hand sanitizer in some situations? Definitely.
Can you limit your ability to fight disease by being a germaphobe? Unfortunately, yes.
Instead of whipping out hand sanitizer spray every time you touch a surface, use it sparingly and let your body build up immunity. Only pull out the sanitizer when you really need it, like if you’re visiting a friend at the hospital or have shaken hands with dozens of people at an office party.
The best hand sanitizer use happens only once in a while.
4. Benzalkonium Chloride: Skin Irritant and Allergy Promoter
We’ve already talked about triclosan, but there’s another ingredient used by many companies in alcohol-free hand sanitizers to replace it. Benzalkonium chloride (BZK) kills bacteria on the skin like triclosan or alcohol, but is associated with asthma and eczema (29).
Because it’s another antibacterial chemical, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) considers it dangerous because it might also contribute to bacteria growing resistant to our immune systems and medications.
Again, I stay away from any alcohol-free hand sanitizer, since the ingredients they use are typically more dangerous than the bacteria they’re supposed to kill. BZK might not be as toxic as triclosan, but it’s an unnecessary danger of hand sanitizer.
5. Increased BPA Absorption: Another Endocrine Disrupting Problem
Remember that I mentioned above how important it is to use even the best hand sanitizer appropriately? This isn’t just important when there’s dirt on your hands — using hand sanitizer can actually cause you to absorb other chemicals you touch.
Dr. Chris Kesser outlines just why this matters so much when it comes to BPA (Bisphenol A), another endocrine-disrupting chemical. Thermal receipt paper contains BPA and when you handle this type of paper after using a hand sanitizer, you absorb way more BPA (30,31,32,33).
Like, up to 185 times more.
More BPA in your system = more risk of a ton of problems.
BPA exposure is associated with (34):
- Reproductive dysfunction (PCOS, infertility, miscarriage, premature delivery)
- Reduced libido
- Reduced sperm count
- Altered sex hormones in men
- Thyroid problems
- Diabetes and blood sugar issues
- Heart disease
- Kidney/liver problems
- Decreased immunity
- Learning impairments
- Aggressive behavior
When you use the best hand sanitizer, the way it affects absorption on your hands can still increase your risk of exposure to BPA from innocuous items like receipts. Try never to use hand sanitizer if you’re going to handle receipts or handle plastic containing BPA and opt for just washing with soap and water instead.
Hand washing vs. Hand sanitizer
Washing your hands with plain (not antibacterial) soap and water is the best way to avoid infection without the health risks of chemicals.
It’s that simple.
The best hand sanitizer, made with organic ethyl alcohol and essential oils, is a great alternative for certain situations, if you avoid the more toxic options like triclosan, synthetic fragrances and BKA. However, it just isn’t something you should use as a first option.
A huge review spanning almost 50 years of research confirms that hand hygiene can greatly protect from stomach bugs and, in some cases, respiratory illness (35). They found no evidence, though, that any type of hand sanitizer or antibacterial soap was more effective than just plain soap and water.
In the question of hand washing vs. hand sanitizer, go for a simple wash (for at least 30 seconds) instead of hand sanitizer unless it’s the only choice. Even if it is the only thing available, the best hand sanitizer isn’t necessary in most situations. So, use it thoughtfully and don’t let yourself be carried away worrying about germs.
How to Make Hand Sanitizer
Because organic ethyl alcohol and essential oils can be great for killing bacteria without impacting your hormones, I love using Dr. Bronner’s lavender organic hand sanitizer. It’s one of the items in our “Ready for Anything” Essential Oils Kit + Hand Sanitizer, helpful for when you’re on-the-go.
But if you’re feeling adventurous, why not learn how to make the best hand sanitizer at home? We’ve developed a great DIY Hand Sanitizer Spray, but the key when making your own sanitizer is to combine alcohol with antibacterial essential oils like melaleuca (tea tree), lemon, clove, cinnamon, lime, rosemary and wild orange (36,37).
You can also try an immune-boosting blend, like doTERRA’s Onguard, especially during cold and flu season.
For soft hands, try adding aloe vera and/or vitamin E to your blend for the best hand sanitizer that creates soft hands. It’s also a good idea to use distilled water, free of fluoride and other minerals.
Before reading this article you may have wondered, “What is the best hand sanitizer? Is it an effective product to own? How can I make the best hand sanitizer at home?”
Hopefully, this has helped break down the facts for you and given you information you can use to make the best hand sanitizer choice for your family.
Do you use hand sanitizer? What’s your favorite kind? We’d love to hear from you. Chat with us in the comments below!
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