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Is Hand Sanitizer Safe?

Cynthia is a digital marketer, writer, and artist. She writes about a variety of topics, especially digital marketing, languages & culture.

Hand Sanitizer: Is it Really Safe?

Hand Sanitizer: Is it Really Safe?

Hand Sanitizer Everywhere

Hand sanitizer is as ubiquitous as handbags. It's used in schools, at home, and in the workplace. But did you ever stop to think if it's really all that great? Sure, millions use it. It is proven to reduce the amount of bacteria on the hands, but digging a little deeper, there could be some interesting things going on....

High Amount of Alcohol in Hand Sanitizer

In order to be effective, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Hospitals tend to use sanitizers with even stronger concentrations of alcohol. But, to effectively kill most bacteria, some fungi, and some viruses, the level cannot be below 60%.

A typical little bottle of the stuff has the same amount of ethanol as 4 shots of vodka. Plus, they make it smell good.

So what's to keep a small child from ingesting it?

It's happened before. A little girl went to the emergency room really lethargic and barely responsive. Blood tests showed normal blood counts and she otherwise showed no signs of disease.

No one could figure out what was wrong until the girl's teacher called and said that she had used hand sanitizer on her hands. The other kids in her class said that the little girl licked the sanitizer off of them.

Doctors immediately started treating for alcohol poisoning.

Some schools have started banning the substance from the lower grades. Some parents have started to lock up their sanitizer, letting children use it only under supervision.

But, there were still 12,000 cases of people ingesting hand sanitizer in 2006, according to data from the Poison Control Center.

Sanitizer is just alcohol, right? Wrong.

Sanitizers have other chemicals in them, too.

This particular brand of hand sanitizer doesn't list benzalkonium chloride, but there are other ingredients I don't recognize.

This particular brand of hand sanitizer doesn't list benzalkonium chloride, but there are other ingredients I don't recognize.

Benzalkonium Chloride

You hear lots about limiting processed foods, especially those with chemical names you can't pronounce. The same should go for skin. It's the largest organ: it's porous and it absorbs whatever you put on it.

So, just what is benzalkonium chloride? Well, it's really soluble in ethanol and manufacturers often use it in small amounts in hand sanitizers and other antiseptic solutions.

It causes disruption of those lipid bi-layers in cell membranes. That's how it kills the bacteria. But...enzymes in the human body and most organic cells have lipid bi-layers. They are what control how much water, fat and other materials enter the cells.


Add to that, benzalkonium chloride is toxic to mammals if the concentration is high enough. Lower on the food chain, it's toxic to aquatic wildlife and birds, even in small amounts.

I think about how often I use hand sanitizer. Am I inadvertently helping to toxify my environment?

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Hand sanitizers often contain fragrances. But, manufacturers aren't required to list exactly what's in those fragrances.

Therein lies the problem.

Fragrances can contain a whole plethora of chemicals.


These are widely used by industries, with a range of applications. In fragrances, they create that oily feel that helps the scent last longer. Anything with a fragrance - hand sanitizers, lotion, hair spray, hair gel, perfume, shampoo, and conditioner - could be a candidate for containing phthalates.

Though they are typically present in small amounts, I have to wonder about the repeated exposure to phthalates. They can hurt cells in the male reproductive tract. They also can potentially make people experience more allergies with more severe reactions, among other things.

I keep hearing stories that the overall human rate of fertility is decreasing (though you may not think so with 7 billion people on the planet). Hmmm.


Remember high school biology and all those animals preserved in it? The smell of formaldehyde is quite distinctive. Fragrances often contain small amounts of this chemical. It is also known to irritate the respiratory tract and the endocrine system in mammals.


In the last couple of decades, triclosan has found its way into soaps, cleaners, toothpastes, and not surprisingly, hand sanitizer, especially non-alcohol-based types.

There are reports that 75% of the US population excretes triclosan in urine because it is so widespread.

The problem with triclosan is that it's antibacterial. On the surface that seems all right, but if you look deeper, it's becoming more associated with bacterial resistance. Thus, we might inadvertently create super-bugs, resistant to antibiotics. Initially, bacteria succumb to triclosan, but there are always a few that are resistant to its effects. Those bacteria are then able to reproduce, despite the triclosan.

It's also associated with being an endocrine-system disruptor. That means human growth and development could be affected by exposure to this particular chemical.

The Verdict

I use hand sanitizers. I am not against them. I am neither a doctor nor a scientist and I haven't personally conducted my own scientific tests to find out everything about these chemicals.

But, I also like to take responsibility for my own health. It's also important to note - again - that other than alcohol and water these chemicals are present in small amounts in hand sanitizers and they are not in every type of sanitizer.

With the prevalence of so many industrial chemicals in water, shampoo, cleaners, and personal hygiene products, I aim to limit my use of hand sanitizers, however. I am not sure how many repeated exposures to these small amounts of chemicals will tip the biological clock to create irregularities in my cellular DNA, but I don't really want to find out.

I think I'm going to stick to natural products to make my own hand sanitizer.

I think I'm going to stick to natural products to make my own hand sanitizer.

Alternatives to Hand Sanitizers

  • Regular soap and water. Generations of people have used regular soap and water to clean their hands and have done just fine with it.
  • Use natural products whenever you can.
  • Make your own on-the-go hand sanitizer. Get a little bit of dish soap (preferably fragrance and triclosan-free), add water, shake and you have your cleaner. Bring along some napkins and paper towels and you can clean your hands and other objects like toys, car steering-wheels, and anything else you might need to clean on the go.
  • Use a hand-sanitizer with completely readable ingredients. That is, ingredients that you can readily identify without being a chemistry major. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Use the Skin Deep Database, and find ingredients that rank as close to "0" as possible (the lower the better).

© 2011 Cynthia Calhoun


Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 20, 2013:

Suzie - aw thank you! I'll look yours up and I'll link back back to you. I'm glad you liked this. HUGS

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on September 19, 2013:

Hi Cyndi,

What a great job you did in your usual thorough manner! Loved all the details on the toxins and dangers of alcohol based ones. Will link this to my own new recipe if that is okay!

Excellent article, up, interesting useful, shared!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 04, 2013:

Macteacher - I can relate - I teach part time and I'm always having to run to the sink to wash my hands. I do keep my homemade stuff handy so that I can use that, too. Thanks for stopping by!

Wendy Golden from New York on March 02, 2013:

I use hand sanitizer a lot because I'm a teacher and the kids and I are touching the same things. Thanks to your hub, I need to stop and rethink using it so much. I think I'm going to try your homemade sanitizer recipe and keep that on my desk at school - it sounds a lot safer. Thanks for a very helpful hub.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 22, 2013:

Que Scout - yep, I suspect as much. I definitely prefer my homemade stuff with a little bit of biodegradable dish soap to the manufactured stuff. I also think Choice Magazine is on to something. :)

Steve from Fiji on February 21, 2013:

Hand sanitizes are very bad for daily use, and will retard your immune system.

In fact according Choice Magazine (a highly respected magazine in Australia similar to USA's Consumer Review) they are so bad that any household using antiseptic hand washes need to do a rethink and stop listening to the latest TV commercials.

Choice Magazine stated that day to day germs around the home are required to build a good immune system. Without the little bugs in our homes people loose there immunities and this is difficult to reverse.

Choice went as far as to insinuate that users are fools and now would be a good time to regulate the manufacturers' claims.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 15, 2013:

Yup. I use it, too. I just prefer the natural stuff when I can make it. :)

LongTimeMother from Australia on February 15, 2013:

I used it when travelling in Egypt. I figured it was safer than the water. And at most of the public toilets (which in most places were just holes in the ground) there was no water anyway. I was grateful for it there.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on January 19, 2013:

Alecia - I know, right? I mean, I use sanitizer, but actually, I prefer to just wash my hands. I've always thought, well, we've done that forever and we've survived, right? lol. Thanks for your feedback!

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on January 19, 2013:

I didn't know this but I do remember hearing how people ingested sanitizer and it pretty much ate their insides. It's one thing to use them when you're not by a sink but I do like the feeling of soap and water. It's just that now everyone's so germaphobic about touching something right after they wash their hands, it seems like people sanitize after washing. I think you're right- you should use them but also use good judgment. Thanks for this valuable information!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on January 11, 2013:

Natashalh - handwashing is so good - I generally just resort to that or make my own biodegradable stuff. :) Thanks for coming by! :)

Natasha from Hawaii on January 11, 2013:

It's funny but just plain old soap and water works better than hand sanitizer! As you point out, an old fashioned hand washing has worked for a very long time. I've also read hand sanitizes aren't as effective as people claim. I generally just don't use them, myself, but one of my coworkers is a hand sanitizer fiend.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on January 11, 2013:

Anya - thank you. Yes, I make my own and I love it.

Pinkhawk - thank you for your feedback! :)

pinkhawk from Pearl of the Orient on January 10, 2013:

I am aware now...Thank you for the warning! ^_^

Anya_Marcot on January 10, 2013:

Thank you for this info. Its especially important for people with hand eczema or allergies, like me.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on December 14, 2012:

Zoffix, well, at least I have a reticular system that filters out interesting comments such as yours. Merry Christmas.

Zoffix Znet on December 14, 2012:

Well, the Verdict summarises the article well. "I don't know anything certain, but I chose to abstain from X"

You say dish soap solution is better, but it triclosan you warn against is an active ingredient in dish soap. It also contains SD Alcohol 3A and sodium xylenol sulfonate, both suspected to be carcinogenic.

"...especially those with chemical names you can't pronounce." Thanks for a great advice. You should make sure your cells do not contains the deoxyribonucleic acid.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on March 17, 2012:

MT - I admit I've used hand sanitizer for years, but sparingly. I've always been a little leery, too. Then, when I finally took a hard look at the chemicals it has, I now make my own on-the-go stuff. I know there's not very much really bad chemicals, but I worry about the long-term exposure to it. Great comments and insights. :)

Shasta Matova from USA on March 17, 2012:

I never really trusted hand sanitizers - I didn't think they would really work, or they would have to contain strong chemicals to work, and I didn't leave them on my skin. Plus when a new product comes on the market, I like to wait and see its long term reactions before jumping on board, especially when it is a chemical. I'll stick with soap and water.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

Lastheart - I'm a teacher, too. So, I eat oranges and take Vitamin C everyday. We work in petri dishes. Haha.

Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord on February 05, 2012:

Ouch!!!!! I walk with this stuff up and down. I am a teacher and it is practically a "must" to have it on our desk. This is one of those issues "darned if you do, darned if you don't". Thanks for sharing.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

Esmeowl12 - I'm glad you found this useful. Yeah, I'm not out to "get" these companies, but I really think it's important for consumers to know what is in the products they use - I don't always trust the big corporations to make these judgement calls for me. Thank you so much for stopping by.

Cindy A Johnson from Sevierville, TN on February 05, 2012:

Wow. I never really thought about all the other stuff in hand sanitizer. I definitely use it when I don't have access to soap and water but feel small children should definitely be monitored in their use. Thanks for sharing this valuable information.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

ytsenoh - as soon as I researched for this hub, I virtually stopped. I have switched to soap and water. The only time I ever use it anymore is if I can't find anything else and need clean hands: like when I've been to the gas station and then going on a picnic or something like that. But, I'm trying to use a spray bottle with a little bit of dish soap for such occasions. :) Thanks for stopping by!

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

Brandon - yes, I am not above using it, but I really try to minimize use just because of what could be lurking in it. Thank you so much for your comments - I appreciate your stopping by. :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

amymarie_5 - there are lots of natural products you can use that don't have harmful chemicals. You can also just get a little bit of dishsoap and put in a spray bottle and that does the trick lots of times for me. :) Thanks for SHARING.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

I'm with you there, Scribenet. I use it on occasion, but otherwise, I like the smell of soap better anyway. Thanks for your comments. :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

Great comments, thoughtforce. Thank you for your insights, especially coming from a healthcare professional. :) Thanks for SHARING.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

Thanks, peoplepower73. I know the amounts tend to be small in hand sanitizers, I've also always heard that since your skin absorbs everything, it's good to be judicious about what you put on it. Thanks for SHARING. :)

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on February 05, 2012:

Very interesting and thorough hub. I stopped using the hand sanitizers when I learned from someone that bacteria can be grown in sanitizers. I do not know the details of the experiment. I returned to good old fashioned soap and water.

Brandon Spaulding from Yahoo, Contributor on February 05, 2012:

I use hand sanitizer as well. I usually only use it when dining out. I have also heard reports that the anti-bactierial sanitizers and soaps can contribute to bacteria and viruses increased resistance to cleansers and antibiotics. However, I have no problem using sanitizer sparingly. Very informative hub and voted up and useful.

Amy DeMarco from Chicago on February 05, 2012:

I had no idea do many chemicals are in hand sanitizers. I don't use them often. I think I'll definitely be switching to more natural skin care products as well. Thanks for SHARING!!

Maggie Griess from Ontario, Canada on February 05, 2012:

I only use sanitizer when soap and water is not available;that would be when I am shopping and get back in the car (lots of germs on shopping carts) otherwise only soap and water, ever! Great Hub!

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on February 05, 2012:

Great article and good information! I have worked in healthcare for over twenty years and sanitizers are great, where it is needed, in hospitals and such! In a normal life there simply is no need for us to use it. I don't use sanitizers at all in my normal life, water and soap is sufficient. We need bacteria on our hands and this phobia for bacteria has gone too far. Wonderful hub, voted up, useful and shared!


Mike Russo from Placentia California on February 05, 2012:

Very informative and useful. I heard that hand sanitizers can also kill good bacteria that protects you from the bad bacteria. I like the way you broke down each of the ingredients. Thanks for SHARING.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

rebeccamealey - thanks again for your wonderful comments. Thanks for SHARING and I'm so glad you found this useful. :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

Kris - thanks for SHARING! You are AWESOME. I'm glad you liked this hub - I know you're a guru when it comes to this, so it's an extreme complement coming from you. *Thank you* :)

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

cebutouristspot - Thanks for reading; I appreciate the votes and your SHARING. I've always been leery of hand sanitizer and I wanted to find out more about it when I wrote this hub. Thanks again.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 05, 2012:

Ya know, Brett, I'm with ya there. Every once in a while I'll use it if there's no alternative, but good ol' hand washing seems like the most sensible thing to do. Thanks for SHARING. :)

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 05, 2012:

I agree, I think they could be over-used, such as antibiotics can be.Good Hub! SOCIALLY SHARED and voted up!

Kris Heeter from Indiana on February 05, 2012:

Great hub:) These are some very nasty chemicals and there is a risk of developing allergies to them with over use. I have most of these sitting my shelf in my research lab - they have the nice little scull and crossbones on the bottles as they considered toxic with over exposure.

Sharing this out to my twitter fans and FB Body Ingenuity page:)

cebutouristspot from Cebu on February 05, 2012:

Since the beginning I don't use hand sanitizer because I don't believe that it is all that great and this just prove that I was right :) Thanks now I can tell them why in more detail :) Voting up and Sharing this.

Brett C from Asia on February 04, 2012:

Interesting. I go with washing my hand far more than using that stuff, actually I think I've only used it a couple of times. I have nothing against it, but actually cleaning seems better somehow. I also saw a friend have an allergic reaction to the stuff, so maybe that put me off it too lol.

SOCIALLY SHARED and voted up + useful.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on February 02, 2012:

Hehe, ever since I researched this, I've been squeamish about using sanitizer. I just wash my hands more. Thanks as always for visiting and commenting and for your explanation of doing 5-10 hubs earlier. :)

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on February 02, 2012:

Looks like I need a sanitizer for the sanitizer. Thanks for warning us about the chemicals. Voting this Up and Useful.

Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on December 23, 2011:

Thanks, Sinea. You've probably guessed that I'm a chemical-phobe from all this, but I really think that companies push products with too many chemicals in them. Thanks so much for your comments and for stopping by. :)

Sinea Pies from Northeastern United States on December 22, 2011:

Great hub! I've been leery of over-sanitizing. I work in a school and some people use it 10 times a day. I use it maybe once or twice a week, if I've handled lots of money or dealt with a sick child. Otherwise, it's soap and water for me. Thanks for the warning and details as to "why". Voted up and useful.

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