Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Are Hand Sanitizers Safe or Superbug Creators?

October 27th, 2011 · 71 Comments · Cleaning, Natural Health

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It’s so easy, you know? Squirt, rub, and done.

For little people and adults alike, waterless hand sanitizers have become a simple and often daily alternative to hand washing in our society.

I happen to be a pretty big fan of them pragmatically, but what about “naturally”? Are antibacterial hand sanitizers a green and natural option or a super-bacteria-creating nemesis?

Let us explore. (photo source)

What is “Antibacterial?”

First, it’s important to make some distinctions about what I mean when I say “antibacterial.” That word on hand soap sends me running for the hills, because 99% of the time it means the active ingredient in said soap is triclosan. I’ve written pretty extensively on triclosan before, so I’m not going to rehash it other than to say this: triclosan is nasty stuff. It is not natural. It is not safe. It needs to be routed out of your home. More:

Step one to safe sanitizer: NO TRICLOSAN

Read your labels. I haven’t checked in a few years, but for example, Bath and Body Works brand always contained triclosan previously.

How Does Sanitizer Work?

Ethyl alcohol is the active ingredient in most hand sanitizers. Ethyl alcohol is the same alcohol that is in wine, beer and liquor.  It works the same as rubbing alcohol to kill germs.

Alcohol kills germs dead, like a hydrogen bomb (sort of).  Triclosan works more like a disease, so some bacteria can mutate to learn to resist the way in which triclosan works.  Alcohol just destroys life.  It also is very drying on skin, which is why most sanitizing gels add moisturizer, and water.  That’s about all you’re getting in the bottle, along with a few other random chemicals.

I did find this about.com article which states:

Hand sanitizers work by stripping away the outer layer of oil on the skin. This usually prevents bacteria present in the body from coming to the surface of the hand.

Honestly, I just can’t even make that make any sense at all in my head. Just goes to show you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet. Ahem. (Now might be a good time to read the disclaimer that says I pretty much know nothing. I’m not a health and wellness expert, and I don’t even play one on TV like Jillian Michaels on The Doctors.)

As far as I know, in order for alcohol-based sanitizers to kill germs or bacteria on your hands, you need to use enough to cover your hands then let it dry completely.

Step two to safe sanitizer: Use it properly – enough, let dry fully.

Are All the Ingredients Safe?

Here’s where you need to become a savvy label reader. Beyond keeping an eagle eye out for the evil triclosan, even the dollar-store alcohol-based sanitizers have some variation in their “other” ingredients.

Most of them, albeit synthetic, are not exceedingly harmful. However, I noticed a few on the latest bottle to pop up at my in-laws’ house that made me really glad when my 3-year-old decided it was too stinky to use:

  • triethanolamine (one of those “top 10″ nasty chemicals I’ve mentioned before, from the book Living Green)
  • fragrance (pretty much means anything could be in there, from hormone disruptors to pesticides…and it stinks, so out came the Thymol version!)

Step three to safe sanitizer: It pays to take a few minutes to check labels and begin to learn what certain chemical names mean.

Is Hand Sanitizer Effective at Killing Germs?

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(photo source)

When you’ve just changed a stinky baby diaper, used the restroom or helped a toddler blow her nose, this is kind of an important question when you’re squirting sanitizer on your hands and moving right to serving food. Does it work?

This 2004 article (which may or may not be accurate) cites a study that claims a 59% reduction in spreading colds when families used hand sanitizer or didn’t. Of course, no one made sure the families using soap and water actually washed their hands as often as the sanitizing families. This article from the CDC does recommend alcohol-based sanitizers as an effective and safe means to killing germs/substitute for hand-washing.

Refuting Myths

I think as soon as a bottle says “antibacterial,” those of us who have been trying to live a “green” lifestyle get turned off. We’ve learned that antibacterial products are no good, create superbugs, and pollute the water supply, among other things.

I just think it’s important to demarcate antibacterial products using triclosan and those using alcohol or even natural options like tea tree oil or thymol. There is a big difference, and in my household, it’s a difference between using a product as an excellent compromise and not using it at all.

  1. Myth: Alcohol-based sanitizers create antibiotic resistant superbugs. False. Alcohols are just killers, not transmutagenic drugs. They do not have anything to do with antibiotics.
  2. Myth: We didn’t need sanitizers for years, so why now? In the past, people either had access to water to wash their hands, used wet wipes (with alcohol in them, I believe), or died more often from infectious diseases. Take your pick.
Advantages of Hand Sanitizers

I do use alcohol-based waterless hand sanitizers in our home. They’re in my van, in my diaper bag, and on the counter. My kids are allowed to use a squirt instead of washing their hands after going to the bathroom or blowing their nose. I make an effort to make sure they’re washing with soap and water at least three times a day though.

Here’s why I rely on them:

  1. Simple convenience. It’s faster and easier to take a squirt than wash one’s hands.
  2. On the run. Although I could use our homemade baby wipes in the van, keeping them around too long results in moldy wipes, plus there’s the issue of the paper waste created. I’d rather have sanitizer always available for the many times we want to eat a snack in the car right after shopping.
  3. Kids are more likely to use them. My kids don’t love washing their hands, and I don’t blame them. They’re not really tall enough to be comfortable reaching the sink, the water gets too hot or too cold, etc, etc. I fight fewer battles saying, “Wash or sanitize your hands and come to dinner.”
  4. Frequency of hand washing = tiresome. Between cooking, cleaning, diaper changes, potty training bottoms, playing outside and eating, moms wash their hands umpteen and a half times a day. My hands get so. very. tired. of being wet and then dry, wet and then dry. I love having an option sometimes. I think even I would skip hand washing after things like blowing noses (which can happen every 5 minutes) if I didn’t have the “squirt” option.
  5. I wonder: because kids aren’t always the most thorough hand washers in the world, is it possible that sanitizers get kids’ hands cleaner than soap and water would? (Even though soap and water and lots of rubbing is of course the absolute best way to clean one’s hands, in spite of everything I say in this post!)
Disadvantages of Sanitizers

That said, there are still plenty of reasons to rely on soap and water only or seek out alternatives to alcohol-based sanitizers:

  • Alcohol dries out your hands. (So does soap and water, though, which is why I keep my MadeOn lotion by my bed and use it nightly!)
  • Possibility of weird synthetic chemicals.
  • Getting too lazy with good hand washing skills.
  • Sanitizers don’t get the dirt off, period.
  • Overkilling bacteria – better overall to simply wash them down the drain rather than kill them all.
Natural Options: Essential Oil Sanitizers

There are now quite a few sanitizers on the market that eschew alcohol and use essential oils like tea tree, Thymus Vulgaris (Thymol), or Niaouli oils. I’ve tried a couple, including Cleanwell brand (save 15% with code CWAA15 through 12/31/12) and Benefect, from Tropical Traditions.

I’m happy to have these options, but I also have a few problems with them:

  1. They are much more expensive than the alcohol-based counterpart, which as I’ve explained, I don’t really have too much of a problem with.
  2. It’s easy to use what is probably to little, since one squirt doesn’t really cover even a child’s hands.
  3. Most come in bottles with squirt tops, which my littlest ones aren’t strong enough to handle on their own. There goes the main advantage of sanitizers. (Cleanwell has come out with foaming sanitizer, which should alleviate this problem, but I haven’t tried them yet.)
  4. I haven’t come across research-based studies on their effectiveness. ???
What About Making Your Own Sanitizers?

In most cases, making one’s own both saves money and puts you in charge of all the ingredients. Here are some sanitizers I’ve considered making:

  • from DIY Natural – I was collecting ingredients this week to put it together, but I realized two things:
    • my aloe is so expensive that I might as well purchase a ready-made natural version, and
    • the aloe says “refrigerate after opening.” Really??? How is that convenient?
  • from Nourishing Treasures – tempting to try, but I realized that Lea didn’t cite anyone’s recipe – she made up her own. It may work just great, but who’s to say it will be effective? I’m relying on this to go from tinkle to toast, and I’m not willing to shoot in the dark.

So I’m not making my own yet, but I’m still on the lookout for a recipe I’ll like.

My bottom line is this: alcohol-based hand sanitizers are much closer to “natural” than even many greenwashed products spouting a “natural” label. They’re fairly safe, effective, and darn convenient. I use them in good conscience.

You may also want to look at how essential oils from Mountain Rose Herbs can help keep your family healthy. The Practical Guide to Children’s Health and Common Sense Health are great resources as well for becoming your family’s first line of defense.

Other Natural Health Posts:

UPDATE: I actually have switched over almost completely to the Benefect sanitizer from Tropical Traditions (I wait for free shipping and a sale of $5 or less to order).

What is your philosophy on hand sanitizers? Do you use them? Do you pay a premium for natural options?

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Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Amazon, MadeOn, Mountain Rose HerbsPractical Guide to Children’s Health and Common Sense Health  and will earn commission; Tropical Traditions also gives some benefits if new users come from my site. See my full disclosure statement here.

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71 Comments so far ↓

  • Grace

    I don’t use hand sanitizers. When they say they kill 99.9% of germs, that .1% of germ they missed is a stronger germ that will now multiply and overtime become the norm, as the norm slowly gets stronger and stronger.

    I have always been of the mindset that a little germs and dirt are good for you and keep your immune system strong.

    I don’t have kids yet though, so I haven’t experienced or thought about some of those related benefits. Right now all I need is regular hand washing.

    [Reply to this comment]

    cirelo Reply:

    I have kids and I kinda agree that some germs and dirt aren’t so bad. I’m not compulsive about making my kids wash their hands cause I figure since our world is so sterile anyway how else are they going to have their immune system challenged. Or maybe I’m just too lazy to make them. The former just Sounds so much better though. . .

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Stacy

    I agree. I very rarely use hand sanitizier.

    I had someone tell me the other day that bacteria build up a resistance to tea tree oil. I’ve never heard this before, have you? Is there some truth to it or no?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Stacy,
    I haven’t heard that, and after reading this post by a microbiologist here at KS: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2010/03/26/the-biology-of-antibiotic-resistance-or-mommy-where-do-superbugs-come-from/
    it doesn’t seem likely that tea tree oil would have that effect. :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • blessed

    Katie, you are a sincere mommy, with plenty of smarts and plenty of reasons to choose hand sanitizer. But may I venture that I think this is one area in which you are not making the same excellent choices you have in other areas of your life. Even if it is “natural,” hand sanitizer still costs money (so, is not frugal) and since it comes in plastic bottles, is only contributing to the pollution of the earth (the resources used to make the plastic, the used bottle ending up in a landfill, so is not green). These are both stewardship issues, which you clearly care about.

    Now, I am the last person to be judging someone–I too am just a mom making the best choices I can in any given day, and I linked my blog so you won’t feel like you are being “attacked” by “annonymous.” : ) If you think the hand sanitizers are a good choice for your family, then so be it. But it sure sounds in this post like you don’t really think it is a good choice, and are trying to rationalize it.

    It is too easy as busy moms to let things slide because they seem like a bigger hassle. I was the same way about brushing my toddler’s teeth–we don’t eat much sugar or even juice, the kids have all had very healthy teeth, it was too tiresome and I didn’t feel like it. But then a friend chided me for it, and I realized I was choosing for the wrong reasons, and ultimately I was not being the parent I should be.

    I am NOT commenting on your parenting here. That was an example from when I did the same kind of rationalization. It is clear from everything you have written that you are a very good mommy. : ) But you are also such a good steward, with such a heart for what is good and even BEST. Your habitiual use of hand sanitizers does not seem “best,” and you did not sound confident in your choice in this post.

    Hand sanitizer (natural if possible) when there is no option for washing seems like a very wise and good choice. Hand sanitizer at home just because it is harder to get the kids to wash their hands does not seem as wise, and does not seem to be “teaching them up in the way they should go.”

    I really enjoy your blog, and depend upon your good research and writing and thought as I am making my own “baby steps” to a healthier home. I hope you don’t mind a little advice back. : )

    [Reply to this comment]

    blessed Reply:

    Oh, and coming back to this, I am sorry I sound so self-righteous. I am really not a b*tch. But I am a champion of reducing plastic and so I did want to encourage you to consider that aspect at least.

    I should also have said that I think santiziting in addition to washing at home if there is some significant illness you are trying to prevent from spreading is very logical.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Blessed,
    No offense taken, but I think what you read as me not liking sanitizers was really probably my defensive against the folks I assumed wouldn’t like them and other “green” places I read that lump them all together with antibacterial soaps. When everyone is blowing their noses and I’m wiping babies’ and toddlers’ bottoms all day, my poor hands go right to the sanitizer as a welcome relief from all the water/drying, too.

    I’m really okay with them…but open to other ideas, too.

    :) Katie

    Oh, and to address the plastic issue – I do refill from a big jug, and we don’t really go through that much plastic, nothing like drinking from plastic water bottles would be.

    [Reply to this comment]

    blessed Reply:

    Thanks for taking my comments in the spirit I intended! : ) And for clarifying your tone.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Foxmom

    Personally the drying aspect is the one that is a deal-breaker for sanitizers altogether. My skin is just too dry. I make sure my boys wash regularly before meals, etc. And I wash frequently when making our meals but otherwise I don’t really stress it. We get sick now and then, though not often overall. The only time I even bought any in the last few years was when one of my boys got pinkeye and I absolutely refused to let it spread. We sanitized on top of frequent washing just b/c it wasn’t practical to expect the 2 yr old to avoid his own eye or wash reliably. It didn’t spread but when that all ended the bottle went back in a cabinet.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Lea H

    Thank you for linking to my recipe. You had questions about its effectiveness.

    I can’t answer you from a scientific standpoint, but only from a level of experience.

    We use this spray on our hands when we go out grocery shopping no way we use this just around the house). I figure if there are superbugs out there, I want the power of TTO on my side! So when we get back in the car after gymnastics or grocery shopping, we spray our hands as we buckle up, before going to the next stop.

    TTO is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. I would rather use this natural version of antibacterial defense rather than alcohol or chemicals.

    We just don’t get sick. Before we sprayed, we got sick like everyone else. My husband and I started using this method before the kids were born, and we were the ones never sick. Now that I have kids, we use this safe TTO version, and we just don’t get sick.

    Except in September when gymnastics started again (summer was off), I neglected to spray our hands, and sure enough, the kids got colds…

    Bottom line: scientifically, I can’t prove my recipe works. But the effective powers of TTO has been proven. I simply add it to water, add oils so the skin doesn’t dry out, and it has worked for us!

    It can’t hurt to try it :)

    [Reply to this comment]

    Erin@TheHumbledHomemaker Reply:

    Glad to have your homemade recipe to try at some point!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Thanks for checking in, Lea! :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Carrie

    Katie, one safety issue I didn’t see you mention about sanitizers is alcohol poisoning with little ones. This makes me nervous with the small sanitizer bottles that I often have in my purse.

    My understanding is that there’s enough alcohol to cause real damage to a toddler who decided to drink the sanitizer – mitigated only by the fact that it tastes so bad kids rarely drink enough to cause damage. (http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/sanitizer.asp)

    I’ve also heard of problems with alcohol poisoning from kids who lick their hands (what won’t kids lick?) right after sanitizing. If you make sure they let it dry properly, of course, you avoid the latter problem.

    Not to say I wouldn’t use them – but a warning to keep them in places that won’t be ingested if you have little kids who put everything they find in their mouths.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Lisa Reply:

    That’s a good reminder, because I do keep some in my purse for when we’re out-and-about. I have also heard of a kid who got it in his eye and did a fair amount of damage…not sure how *much* he got in there, but still a good reminder about limiting access for little ones.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Melissa D Reply:

    If you have it in the house, it’s usually on the counter (higher than a smaller kid’s head). And if you use it rarely, it gets that “crust” on it that can make it shoot out sideways. We tell all the kids that if they use it, they need to turn their heads!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Carrie,
    You’re very right; that was heavy in the news a few years back. The post I linked to with my previous thoughts on sanitizer discussed that issue, and I didn’t want to write the same post twice, you know? But thanks for the reminder! :) katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Peggy

    We don’t have a problem with dryness here, so we wash frequently with homemade soap and hot water. For times we can’t get to a sink (a sneeze in the middle of a movie, for example) I carry a 2 ounce bottle in my purse filled with plain old rubbing alcohol. Works great, easy, dries fast, no harmful anything, no greasy residue. Oh, and cheap? Yup.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Peggy,
    That DIY version includes witch hazel, and I couldn’t find any here, so I was about to sub with rubbing alcohol when I realized I’d have to refrigerate the aloe gel. I think I have fancy aloe gel! I just figured that would be a nicer carrier instead of pure liquid, which could get messy/drippy. ???

    Good frugal note though! :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Louise

    I worked for a number of years on the admin staff of a nursing home – even without direct patient care contact, I found myself sanitizing multiple times per day. We were using an alcohol based sanitizer, and yes I felt the drying effects, but I still felt safer using it than not. I often had to shake hands with strangers, touch money, push wheelchairs, help folks stand up or sit down, pick up a stray cup or bowl, or any of a million other small tasks that we all performed without thinking as we went about our “real jobs.” (I use quotes, because I feel like all those little things should be the real jobs of those caring for our elders.) If I had washed my hands every single time I did one of these things, I’d have spent more time in the washroom than working. I also taught my daughter to use sanitizers as part of her visits to my workplace – I weighed the risk of the sanitizer against the risk of any number of communicable diseases that could have been lingering on surfaces there. I felt that this was a better option than keeping her away from the nursing home, which gave me the opportunity to teach her lessons in caring and compassion and love. I think in any parenting decision, we have to weigh all the factors, and sometimes we compromise because it allows something new or better to creep into our lives. If I’d chosen not to sanitize my daughter’s hands in that setting I’d have had to choose to keep her away to keep her healthy, and I’d never have seen the joyous smiles that her presence brought out in the residents of the home.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kelsey

    I try not to use hand sanitizers. While I think they’re great for when you absolutely can’t go wash your hands, like in the car or on a camping trip, I don’t think they should be a substitute for hand-washing in everyday life. I’ve heard a few times that hand sanitizer only kills bacteria, not virus. Not sure if it’s true or not; just think it’s better practice to get into the habit of hand washing than sanitizing.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Dawn

    I use either hydrogen peroxide or colloidal silver as hand sanitizer (keep in a little bottle in my car) for when I am out.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Sarah W.

    No comment about hand santizers other than I can’t use them :( Nor can I even wash my hands! I have now gone months with hardly letting any water touch my hands due to severe hand eczema. I HATE it! And of course as a homemaker and mother of three, can you imagine what I am not washing off?? That being said, I use gloves a lot (not frugal, not green, but what choice do I have? – actually I am looking into what sort of washable and reusable gloves might help me out) and I have a non-soap cleanser (cetaphil) that can be used without any water, and you just use a towel to wipe it off. I have no idea how it compares to other methods for killing germs (I doubt it does much) or getting rid of dirt (rather effective, I hope) Again, this really isn’t a comment on anything other than an opportunity to vent my woes on handwashing! :(

    [Reply to this comment]

    Casey Reply:

    I can only imagine how irritating that must be! Have you looked into the GAPS diet yet? You may find some relief from your eczema there.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Cindy Reply:

    That is so hard- especially as a mom. I’ve seen people find relief by doing a candida cleanse.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Casey Reply:

    Understandably so. It can be hard enough just to eat whole foods, let alone making ANOTHER diet change that huge! But nothing is as overwhelming or as hard when you take Katie’s advice and use baby steps. :) Still, juggling kids, meals, housewifery, and all the craziness that goes with is a large undertaking, and I’m surely not one to judge on what a busy mom can and cannot do. :)

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Oh, Sarah, how awful! Is avoiding water helping? I’m dying for you here b/c I feel like you’re an old friend, and here I didn’t even know you’re in all that pain. Yuck. I sure hope there’s a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere for you!!!
    Love, Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

    Sarah W. Reply:

    Thank you, Katie. It hasn’t always been this way. I never had eczema on my hands until after my first son was born (but I did have it as a child on my body), and then it was only a tiny patch on my ring finger and not too bothersome. Then I had a flare the summer before last, which eventually resolved and I didn’t think about it too much. And now the past four or five months though, I’ve had a bad flare and have been SLOWLY trying to get it into a state of remission by avoiding water, moisturizing with aquafor and occasionally using steroids or protopic when its at its worst. I actually am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel now… but the big question mark for me is if I’ll be able to avoid such flares in the future or will I start going through this painful cycle more often? It is so debilitating at times! :( It’s sort of a new way of life for me and I am trying to figure out how to adapt to it.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Holly Reply:

    Sarah, I had eczema as a child also and never a problem until several years ago. Mine flares up only in the summer months. Usually, it’s at it’s worst by July and stays that way until I am begging for the snow to fly! It is so crazy how something so small can be so debilitating. I have found that coconut oil is a good substitute for aquafor. It never stings or burns and it does coat the skin and keep it pliable. Also, I shower infrequently and never with hot water. I generally do a quick job and get out. I can ONLY handle Soapworks soap. I get it at my local health food store. It is sold with no packaging whatsoever and has the type of soap engraved in each bar. It’s the only thing I’ve found that doesn’t burn. I wash my hair over the edge of the tub so the shampoo does not have to run down my body and sting. If I have eczema on my hands I have my Mom or my husband do it for me. I have found that citrus and milk greatly exacerbate mine, but that could be individual. And I have to second others comments. I have not done the GAPS diet, but am getting there ;) I think candida may play a big role. And when you are desperate, sometimes you’ll try ANYTHING! From a fellow Mama and eczema sufferer, I hope you find some relief!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Lori

    hm… this is all interesting. I think I am just one of those people who doesnt stress about germs at all, ha. I do have a bottle of sanitizer in my diaper bag but honestly I havent used it in a very long time. I really should have my toddler wash his hands more often I do you that but he doesnt get sick very often anyway. I just assumed there was some ingredient in sanitizer that was bad but I suppose alcohol isnt harmful. What brands have you found without questionable other ingredients?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Lori,
    It’s such a gamble! The three in the house right now are all random store brands, Meijer and a pharmacy (CVS maybe? Assured is the brand) and a dollar store version. Assured is the one from the post with the triethanolamine in it, and the other cheap-o one has about half the ingredients. You just have to read the back…

    :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Beth @ Turn 2 the Simple

    It looks like there is quite the controversy brewing…ultimately each person has to weigh the pros and cons and make the best choice for their own family and situation.

    My college nursing professor taught me that alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not contribute to superbugs because the germs are being killed by the alcohol — as it evaporates it destroys the cell walls of the bacteria. So, no superbugs but to work it must be allowed to dry completely.

    When I was working as a nurse I found it much easier to use hand sanitizer (and faster) to use hand sanitizer. I was often able to use it when hand washing wasn’t an option — after helping a patient use the toilet BEFORE helping them re-dress…quick, effective and no cross-contamination! In the medical setting I WANT by care-givers to be using hand sanitizer because bad hand washing is almost as bad as NO hand washing. But at home I keep it on hand (in the bathroom, in my purse/diaper bag) for use when hand washing isn’t practical but I encourage hand washing when it can be done!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Sharon

    I don’t use hand sanitizers. Ever. I have a toddler, and I agree that your hands get dry from washing them every other second. But, I try to put lotion on after washing as often as possible. And at night, I put Bag Balm on my hands, and cover them with gloves.

    My toddler washes her hands after playing outside (and in her baths at night). And after eating since she tends to have sticky food on her hands afterwards. But that’s about it.

    I think some germ exposure is important to build up immunity and since she isn’t in a day care setting or in the church nursery etc. I don’t worry about sanitizing our grocery cart handle or washing my daughters hands after she’s been in one. (Hmm, though I do wash my hands after going to the store, so that is contradictory, huh???)

    I think it’s wise to get kids started on hand washing early so that they’ll continue to do it for the rest of their lives. Right now my toddler loves to wash her hands. Maybe that will change as she gets older….

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Kami

    We don’t use hand sanitizers at my house, but I do make my own. I use On Guard, an essential oil blend from doTERRA, that is shown to be very effective in killing germs. I simply have it in a glass spray bottle that is filled with water and then 15-20 drops of the essential oil. To me, the cost is so low that I don’t even think about it and if my kids lick their hands afterwards, I could care less. It is so effective in helping us overcome illness, that I trust its efficacy in killing the germs at least somewhat on their hands (or grocery cart, etc). It works for me and since I’m not really a germ freak, I don’t worry about it too much.

    PS, I parent like you do. It’s such a battle to get my 3 year old to wash his hands after preschool that I simply allow him to have his hands sprayed instead. Would washing with soap and water be better? Yes. But, an hour long meltdown isn’t worth it :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Julie

    I make my own hand sanitizer using 15 drops of tea tree oil mixed with approx. 2 oz water in a glass spritzer. I keep one in the car and one in my purse. Because of family schedules, the kids snack from time to time the in the car and I want their hands clean (and mine too before I’m passing out snacks.)

    Plus, last night there was a story on my local news that the germiest surface is the gas pump. I certainly don’t want germs transferring from my hands to my steering wheel so I can re-infect my hands every time I drive. Ick.

    I keep a couple in the house too. It’s easier to get my kids to spray their hands clean than to get them to wash hands after every blown nose.

    Just have them saturate their hands (how many sprays depends upon the age/size of the child) and rub until dry.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    That recipe makes sense, and so simple! Thanks

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  • willowsprite

    I only use sanitizers if we’re out shopping, and then have a snack in the car/on the go. Otherwise we wash our hands when we get home. I use a generic alcohol-based spray, and Cleanwell for the children. I don’t want to put alcohol on my children’s hands. Other than that, diaper changes, food handling, housecleaning etc is done without sanitizing.

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  • birthrightrose

    We keep a 2 ounce spray bottle in all of our cars filled with 20 drops of grapefruit seed extract, adding a drop of lavender or tee tree oil or eucalyptus oil to smell good, and water to fill the balance of the bottle. We swear by it!

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  • Marcella

    Thank you for your post. I work in a library and really need to keep my hands clean to keep from getting every college student’s latest bug! My coworker has a bottle of Avant Hand Sanitizer that I broke down and used the other night (I’m totally all natural at home when it comes to cleaners and toiletries). After the 2nd cleaning I started to develop a metallic taste in my mouth when I licked my lips and i’m fairly certain it came from the sanitizer. It was awful!!! After this post I read the ingredients and it has triethanolamine in it. Needless to say, I will not be using it again but since I can’t wash my hands after each transaction with a patron I will definitively be trying an all natural version :)

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  • Emily @ Random Recycling

    Katie,
    Thanks for sharing your use of the sanitizers. I too feel they are so handy in the car and at restaurants. We tend not to use them in the house as my daughter still enjoys washing her hands by herself.
    One thing I do that has helped us avoid illnesses is to use sanitizing wipes after the playground. I feel they get both the dirt and germs off. The lack of Eco friendly packaging bothers me more than the ingredients in this case.

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  • Catie

    I guess I just don’t worry very much about germs. As a child of a registered nurse who was very concerned that we build immunity, we were never protected from germs. We did have to wash visibly dirty hands and we had to wash our hands before meals. But my mom never bought antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer. I guess she just didn’t see the point. We rarely got sick, so I guess we didn’t need it.

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    Jassica Reply:

    I think this is the camp I’m in. It’s the way I was raised and the way I raise my children. I don’t worry about it and we seem to have pretty good immune systems. I do carry a thyme oil based sanitizer in my purse for emergencies, but it rarely gets used. I also don’t like overwashing or sanitizing for the drying effect. Dry, cracked skin is more vulnerable than supple, healthy skin. The germs can slide right through the cracked skin and cause infection.

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  • Heather

    Oh thank you thank you. I am so glad to hear that it’s not all antibacterial products that are bad. When my babies are in the newborn stage, I would keep a bottle of hand sanitizer with the diapers so that I didn’t have to leave them to wash my hands. And it’s invaluable in the car, especially when the boys roll around on the floor in the store! ugh!!

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  • Stephanie M

    Just came across this product today http://www.binkyspritz.com/questions.html and it reminded me of this post. They use lemon juice and orange oil to clean pacifiers, etc. I wonder how much research they have done???

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  • Heather via Facebook

    This was my favorite quote from your post, “I’m relying on this to go from tinkle to toast, and I’m not willing to shoot in the dark.” ;)! Thanks for the article. I prefer to avoid hand sanitizers whenever possible but agree, if needed I would use an alcohol based version. Thanks for your well thought out post.

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  • Stephanie

    As a pediatric RN I tend to be very paranoid about germs yet very practical. I do not use antibacterial hand soap in my home; it is too drying and hard on my hands as well all of the other cautions of overusing antibacterial products.
    I teach my kids hand washing in ways that no other parent teaches. (The number one way to prevent disease.) We do use sanitizer when soap and water are not available but it is not a standard just because of convenience.
    What I wanted to put across is that sanitizer does not kill every germ. At the pediatric hospital I work at we have to wash our hands with soap and water after contact with patients who have certain illnesses because the sanitizer doesn’t kill the bugs. The main one is Clostridium difficile — other wise known as C-diff. This is a very common type gastroenteritis that spreads like wild fire among those in contact with this illness. While this illness is usually seen in the hospital setting due to antibiotic usage, it is becoming more common in a community setting. Symptoms are like an intense stomach flu–diarrhea/nausea/ vomiting.
    There are other illnesses that we are required to use soap and water instead of sanitizer, all have to do with feces.
    I teach my kids they can use sanitizer when soap and water isn’t available but it is an absolute must that they use soap and water after going to the bathroom, especially stooling, and prior to touching any food that goes into their mouths.

    I don’t want to sound preachy just want to make all aware that their is a time and place for sanitizer. However, I would choose sanitizer over nothing and when I had four kids ages four and under, I’m sure I used is more frequently just to save my sanity.(We choose our shortcuts so we can be patient, functional parents don’t we?)

    Remember to wash those hands!! :)

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    Bethany W Reply:

    I’m glad you mentioned c diff in your comment. Our daughter was 18m old when she caught c diff in the hospital — most likely from nurse cross-contamination. She’d never really had antibiotics before… but she caught four rounds of c diff and it took us a long time to eradicate it from her system. I’ve never washed hands in earnest so much. :) We’re due with our second any day now and I’ll definitely be opting to wash my hands after each diaper change (particularly the pooey ones), rather than the squirt of sanitizer which is so tempting to do.

    I wonder about keeping a spray bottle of vinegar/alcohol/essential oils to use when we’re out shopping and I don’t really want to touch the nasty shopping cart?

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    Katie Reply:

    Stephanie,
    Thank you for this info! I really appreciate hearing from people who know what they’re talking about. So….get to the sink after poopy diaper changes, in other words? C-diff sounds scary, and it does make me wonder about the common practice at doc’s offices of just using sanitizer between kids…

    Thanks! Katie

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    Bethany W Reply:

    C diff really is horrible. When you go to the hospital, you have to let them know your kiddo/patient has it and then they quarantine you. Spores can last for years and the only thing that kills it is 10% bleach solution. It’s like a cross between labor pains, the worse diarrhea you’ve ever had, e-coli poisoning, and the flu. It’s even worse when the strain turns antibiotic-resistant (as in our case). Needless to say, I’m thankful for GAPS! :)

    Katie – have you tried using your wipes as a hand-cleaning method for on-the-go wipe jobs?

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    Katie Reply:

    Bethany,
    Yes, I did the other day for sticky apple hands! I just know that when I don’t have a baby in diapers, I won’t always have them around, but I should try to use them more now that we do… Thanks! :) Katie

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  • Erin@TheHumbledHomemaker

    Katie, Thanks for being honest and transparent in this post. I, too, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It’s on my long list of things to do to eventually try to make my own. I don’t overuse it. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I ought to use it more!

    I know how crazy things can be w/ just TWO kids. I can’t imagine 3 (yet!). You are healthy and green…sometimes you just have to be OK w/ some conventional things. Admitting you use hand sanitizer sometimes use hand sanitizer probably makes a lot of your readers feel better!

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  • Elisabeth

    I don’t buy sanitzers but I think they probably have their place. Like one of the commenters, who is a nurse, mentioned, if they washed every time they were in contact with something dirty at the hospital, they would be at the sink all the time.

    I am very persnickety about my children washing for meals and especially after they use the bathroom and I am happy to report that all my children are good about that.

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  • Sarah

    I’ve been going through this whole debate within myself lately, too. I’m glad to see someone else who is thinking it through. I just know I read somewhere (although where, now, I can’t remember) that vinegar is a natural sanitizer. Using it on kitchen and bathroom countertops as a cleaner in the place of commercial Clorox or Lysol wipes is supposed to kill germs just as effectively…so that’s what I’ve been doing. Why couldn’t it work just as well for hands? (BTW, I haven’t read all of the previous comments, so if someone else has mentioned this…sorry for the repeat!) Seems like keeping a little spray bottle of vinegar and water mix in the diaper bag might be a good alternative. Need to research it more, I guess!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Reply:

    Sarah,
    Maybe you read it here? ;) I love using vinegar as a cleaner, and good point that it should work for hands, too. My kids both hate the smell…hmmm…essential oils could help that. But like some others mentioned, just the right EOs in water would do it, too.
    :) Katie

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  • Cindy

    I always come to KS with questions. I’m excited that I have something to contribute this time!

    Regarding Lea’s recipe- Tea Tree Oil is scientifically proven to be antiseptic, antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-fungal without the issues of synthetic antibiotics. It’s so popular because it is so versatile, powerful, and still mild enough for our kids. The only part that is a shot in the dark is that the quality of the oil will determine it’s effectiveness. Like so many things, the FDA doesn’t regulate this well so a bottle can say anything- just find a company you trust. I use doTERRA.

    I mix fractionated coconut oil (keeps it liquid) with the essential oil blend On Guard because it has been shown to even inhibit Staph and MRSA. Very inexpensive because it ends up being less than 1/2 a drop of essential oil per use. No longer do I fear the germ!

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  • Megan

    We actually never use hand sanitizers even with a trached infant. She got exposed to so much of it in her NICU stay that I want to work on building up her immune system. We do wash our hands ver frequently though and I use a hand purifier called Clean George after stores and hospital visits. We also shower when coming home from anywhere, especially the hospital/doctor. Side note: I now feel even more comfortable about using vinegar as a cleaner as that os what is recommended to clean her trachs (we have to reuse them once since she gets weekly trach changes but only 2trachs a month from insurance). I figure if they think vinegar/water solution is good enough to clean something that goes inside her trachea with direct access to her lungs, it’s good enough for my general cleaning.

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  • D.

    Essential oils do have documented proof of their antibacterial and other qualities, you just have to look for the evidence. Here’s one link where he discusses a few things which might put minds at ease about the “science”: http://www.aromabar.com/articles/baud55.htm

    I don’t put much stock in “science” these days because most of it is so bogus anymore. People will say (and find) whatever they are paid to say and find.

    Personally, I use a mixture (which I make myself) called 4 Thieves. Lots cheaper than buying ready-made oils since I’m perfectly capable of mixing them myself! But I use lots of other oils, too.

    Also, @ blessed: You must know that most of us who are in the know about plastic would use glass jars to mix these oils, and besides most essential oils will melt plastic bottles and plug up a sprayer in jig time, too. Until they are mixed with purified water, or a Vodka or Rum base, they are very powerful, indeed.

    I use these types of things to wash my hands because I take care of babies for 12 hours every day and it’s so much easier on my hands than store purchased soaps. Sometimes I buy the plain (unscented) Dr. Bronner’s soap and add my own oils, or I buy the block of Kitchen Soap from Lavender Farms and scrape off a small amount, put it into a glass bowl and add whatever scent I’m in the mood for that day and that’s my soap.

    Easy if you have kids, too, because it is no different to dip your hands into the bowl than it is to try to use a bar of soap, as far as being “germy” is concerned.

    The initial cost is semi-high, but when you figure what you save in a years time, it costs just pennies per day.

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  • home care in charlotte nc

    Great article! I have been wondering about hand sanitizer vs traditional hand washing. Thanks for sharing!

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  • Tiffany

    Great info, Katie. I keep a bottle of Cleanwell in my car for use after shopping or playgrounds but I usually shy my kids away from all hand sanitizers in favor of traditional hand washing. After reading this, I’ll probably relax a little about alcohol based sanitizers in favor of keeping us a little healthier this winter – we are already on cold #2 and are usually a very healthy family.

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    D. Reply:

    The EO company puts out a very nice “instant” hand sanitizer. Check it out online. I do not work for them, I have just used a bunch of their products in the past few years because they are fairly pure.

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    D. Reply:

    Here’s a link to the EO hand sanitizer products, but you could easily make your own with vodka, glycerin and essential oil (scent of choice).

    http://www.eoproducts.com/Categories/Hands/Hand-Sanitizers.aspx

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    D. Reply:

    One more thing and then I’ll quit! You could use witch hazel in place of the vodka or rum as the base of the sanitizer. Also you could add a little aloe gel to the end product, but if you’re using a good quality veg glycerin you may not need the aloe. Mountain Rose Herbs is a wonderful place to get good products like glycerin, witch hazel and all kinds of other stuff. Here’s the page for those two (way at the bottom of the page):

    http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/bulkmisc/bulkmisc.php#bu_gly

    Once it’s all mixed, THEN put it into a spray bottle or whatever. In my car I carry one of those small traveler packs of Huggies wipes, only I take the Huggies wipes out and rinse them to get their product out, then I saturate them with my homemade solution and stuff them back into the package. That way I have wipes, as well as a spray. But I mix the whole works in a glass jar first. It may not be perfectly ideal, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying organic hand wipes which are questionable sometimes, and it’s better than the original Huggies chemicals.

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    Katie Reply:

    Thanks, D!

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    Bethany W Reply:

    I was just going to ask if anyone was familiar with EO hand sanitizer. :) I’m pleased with it; was just curious how it “ranked.”

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  • Leanne

    In many cases, substances that need refrigeration in their basic state don’t need it (or last quite a bit longer w/out refrigeration) when EOs are added. So I’m thinking that smaller portions (like the small squirt bottle) of the aloe sanitizer might do fine out of the refrigerator for a time. I might try refrigerating it when I’m home (if I think I’d remember to grab it when I go out). Or in winter I might leave it in the car in the garage because that should be cold enough. :-)

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  • Melissa D

    I’m a writer, and wrote a specific article called “Coming Clean” about the use of sanitizer & antibacterial soap in the home (it was republished in some city parenting mags, originally pubbed in Atlanta Parent in 2008, I think). I interviewed CDC experts for it, asking man of these same questions. From my piece: 1) we don’t need to worry too much about antibacterial soap — the superbugs come mostly from over-prescription of antibiotics. 2) If MRSA is an issue, you need to use a soap with anti-staph properties (Dial, Phisoderm, etc). 3) Alcohol gels are useful if you don’t have access to water & soap — in other words, they do have their place. 4) The concentration of alcohol in the gel is important — it needs to be 96% and up. Most DIY recipes don’t specify percentages of alcohol, so use with caution. 5) Baths soften skin more than showers (allowing bacteria easier entrance).
    In conclusion — the docs at the CDC agreed that if you wash hands and get your flu shots and vaccinations, you’re taking care of business. Bring in bigger guns (sanitizer, anti-bacs) if your specific case merits it.
    All of this discussion has me thinking I need to revisit the piece and write another one!

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    Katie Reply:

    Melissa,
    D. is a little harsh; this isn’t an easy subject and full of misinformation. There are so very many reasons to cry out against antibacterial soaps, and superbugs are among the minor ones. Did you know triclosan is showing up in our bloodstream now? Cute. Not so safe.

    On the alcohol content, are you sure he said 96%? I’ve never seen a sanitizing gel with more than 70%, and believe me, I read the backs of a lot of packages.

    I do give props to the CDC for basically saying we don’t need antibacterial soap, that a good scrubbing will take care of things. If only that message came across louder to the general public…but the CDC doesn’t have the advertising money of Bath & Body Works, you know?
    Thanks for visiting! :) Katie

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    Melissa D Reply:

    I went back and checked my notes for that piece rather than just the piece itself. I think most people here would agree with what the CDC says — that antibacs are not necessary; that gels are a “reasonable alternative” if you are in a place where you *cannot wash hands*. And that most superbugs are created by antibiotics. I could swear that was the percentage of alcohol but I can’t find that in this batch of notes for some reason. (Point being that most gels don’t have the high percentage needed to be effective, and most DIY recipes for the gels don’t specify, either.)
    I will say that the people I interview at the CDC are more than willing to discuss the full ramifications of what are becoming more and more common treatments in the home for germs.

    I think it’s important to note that CDCers are for the most part *parents themselves*, working on a government salary. They are not pharma execs. And sure, research changes over the years and yes, studies can be flawed — but I don’t categorize these people as THEM any more than I would categorize a racial, political, or religious group. It’s so unproductive.
    And I don’t write pieces like this because I have an axe to grind. Rather, I wanted to know my options with regard to a changing standard of “clean” and to see how regular moms think of and act on that self-imposed, commercial-driven standard compared to scientists and people who study disease for a living — who are also parents!

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    Katie Reply:

    Melissa,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to check back! I see what you mean about the percentage – kind of scary if your numbers are right and all the gels out there are way too low to do any good anyway… I’m really happy to hear about the positive experience with the CDC, and you’re right – I totally agree on those points. Thanks! :) Katie

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  • D.

    I don’t trust the CDC any farther than I can throw their biggest liar.

    And there are two ways I’ll EVER get a flu shot or any other vaccination: no way and no (*&%^ way.

    There is nothing more immunizing than a good, old-fashioned cold or case of the flu. Learn to build up your immunity naturally and stop counting on “modern medicine” or their ilk to do it – because they cannot.

    Yes, Melissa D., you certainly need to do more thorough research and write another article. Start by reading at the NVIC site, the VAERS site, thinktwice. com and a few others.

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    Lea H Reply:

    I have to agree: I don’t trust the CDC, and I’ll never get a flu shot either. My kids aren’t vaxed and never will be. It’s just not worth the risks.

    Building up the immune system is the best, most effective way to stay well.

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  • D.

    Harsh?? I provide day care for infants every M-F from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. If anyone knows about sanitation it’s me. I’ve never trusted or used prepared, Unilever or Proctor and Gamble products, just like the generations past didn’t rely on them either. My gramma washed her hands in whiskey to keep them free of germs when they had to be super clean. I prefer to use essential oils and filtered water. Sometimes I use rubbing alcohol as a base, but rarely because it’s too drying. I have a mixture of filtered water, glycerine and essential oils that works just fine for me and I don’t need the CDC or any other alphabet agency to tell me how to do things. Melissa D., can write articles til the cows come home.

    After 22 years of providing care for tiny, at-risk babies, along with healthy ones, I don’t question my way of doing things, but I do question alphabet agencies who are directed by the FDA, and OTHER alphabet agencies. They all work for the same cause. It’s called $$ in their pockets and they tell whatever truth is convenient at the time if it benefits the pharma industry or some other huge corporation. I don’t work for a corporation, I’m self-employed.

    And vaccinations never “saved” anyone. That’s the area where you guys need to do a little more research and I provided the link names to get you started. I have many, many more links and articles if anyone is interested.

    [Reply to this comment]

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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