I’ve never liked hand sanitizers and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used them. I never liked the chemically, perfumy scent, and I didn’t like how my hands felt after using them – so dry and papery. Yet everyone seems to have one in their pocket, diaper bag, or purse, especially with cold and flu season coming on. My former office had a sanitizer station by every door and in every bathroom. But, are they effective? Are they even safe? Are there dangers of hand sanitizers?
An article by Dr. Chris Kresser highlighted a realm of issues with conventional hand sanitizers that I’d never known. And it motivated me to find a better alternative, though nothing replaces a good hand washing with soap and water. (1)
As it turns out, there are a lot of good reasons to avoid using conventional hand sanitizer.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent added to many personal care and cleaning products, including hand sanitizers. Research indicates that this toxin disrupts hormone regulation, especially that of the thyroid, and immune function in the body. Studies also show that Triclosan impairs function of both cardiac and skeletal muscle tissue. Additionally, Triclosan contributes to the growing issue of antibiotic resistant microbes by causing common antibiotics to become less effective. If you see the word “antibacterial” on the label, chances are the product contains Triclosan. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
2019 Update – Since the writing of this post, the FDA banned the use of Triclosan and almost 20 other concerning antibacterial agents in antibacterial soaps in the United States. The FDA took this step after it was discovered that they were no more effective than washing hands with soap and water. The European Union has also passed a similar ban. However, Canada still allows the use of Triclosan in antibacterial products despite calls from the Canadian Medical Association to ban its use. (7, 8, 9)
Parabens are another common antimicrobial addition to personal care products. They can be Found on the label as themselves (ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben or propylparaben, for instance), parabens are also hidden within other ingredients, like “fragrance” and “perfume”. Parabens, known estrogen mimickers, disrupt the body’s natural balance and production of estrogen, and contribute to endocrine disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and cancer. They are absorbed into the body from topical application, especially when combined with alcohol, which is a key ingredient in most hand sanitizers. In 2012, the European Union banned the use of parabens, but North America has yet to follow suit. (10, 11)
On the topic of “fragrance” and “perfume”, hand sanitizers are usually full of them. Since these chemical cocktails are considered trade secrets, no one knows the ingredients used but the manufacturers themselves. Trade secrets such as “fragrance” and “spices” are exempt from disclosure. As of 1998 (20 years ago!), over 3,000 different ingredients were used in the concocting of fragrances. A single fragrance recipe can contain as few as 10 ingredients or as many as several hundred. Due to trade secret legislation, it is impossible to study fragrance ingredients properly, and the fragrance industry conducts its own safety studies. Sounds legit, right?
Of the personal care products studied independently listing fragrance as an ingredient, chemicals found have included those that cause skin, eye, and mucosal irritation, endocrine disruption, cardiac disturbances, nervous system disturbances, cancer, gastric disturbances, respiratory distress, muscle weakness and stupor, and vision issues. None of these chemicals were individually listed on the label, so the probability is very high that they were included in the fragrance recipe used. Research links synthetic fragrances to hormone disruption, reproductive system disruption, allergies, and respiratory distress. (12)
Using hand sanitizer quite literally opens up the user to a host of environmental toxins. Many personal care products, including hand sanitizers, contain dermal penetration enhancers. These chemicals improve the delivery and effect of the active ingredients present in the product by getting it deeper in to the skin. Effectively, they open up your skin to allow ingredients to pass through the dermal layer. According to Dr. Kresser’s article, hand sanitizers can increase the absorption of BPA (a known estrogen mimicker and immune disruptor) by the skin by up to 185%! (1)
If I had my doubts about the dangers of hand sanitizers before, this information absolutely cemented the fact that I will never use hand sanitizer again! Old-fashioned hand washing with soap and water is just as, if not more, effective than antibacterial hand sanitizers.
But what about those times where you don’t have access to soap and water to wash up? Or those who still feel better about having a little extra back-up at hand? Thankfully, this evidenced-based solution is better and more effective than that antibacterial nonsense. And it comes without the dangers of hand sanitizers. As a bonus, it’s super easy to make. Natural hand sanitizer is great to have on hand this time of year and is convenient and safe to carry in your purse or diaper bag or even throw in the kids’ backpacks to take to school. Tea tree (melaleuca) oil is the active ingredient in this natural hand sanitizer. Studies show that tea tree (melaleuca) oil kills most bacteria at a concentration of 0.5 – 1% and has shown potent antiviral effects, including against influenza-type illnesses, at an even lower concentration. (13, 14, 15)
DIY Natural Hand Sanitizer
- 5 drops lavender essential oil Can use any of your favourites, just be sure they are suitable for topical use. Citrus oils can cause photosensitivity, for example.
- 15-30 drops tea tree essenial oil 15 drops will give you 0.5% concentration, 30 drops will give you 1%
- 1.5 tsp witch hazel
- 4 oz pure aloe vera juice or gel
- 1/8 tsp vitamin E oil
- Combine essential oil and Vitamine E oil in a glass bowl (make sure you use glass as essential oils can react with other materials).
- Add witch hazel and aloe to oils and stir to combine.
- Transfer into bottles or containers of your choice. Be sure to use containers that are safe for essential oils. Glass or stainless steel are best, but PET plastic can also be used.
This should keep for several months as the vitamin E oil acts as a preservative in addition to a moisturizer.