For kids and adults alike, waterless hand sanitizers have become a simple and often daily alternative to hand washing in our society.
It’s so easy, you know? Squirt, rub, and done.
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.
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 Hand 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.
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!)
Is Hand Sanitizer Effective at Killing Germs?
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Simple convenience. It’s faster and easier to take a squirt than wash one’s hands.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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 Hand 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.
- Antibacterial soap doesn’t work any better than regular soap. (sources: one, two)
- Schoolchildren don’t get sick any less by using hand sanitizers vs. regular handwashing (source)
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 and Benefect, from Tropical Traditions, and Raise Them Well’s version, too.
I’m happy to have these options, but I also have a few problems with them:
- 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.
- It’s easy to use what is probably to little, since one squirt doesn’t really cover even a child’s hands.
- 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.)
- I haven’t come across research-based studies on their effectiveness. ???
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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 Plant Therapy 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:
- Green and Natural Body Products
- Monday Mission: Get the Antibacterial Soap Out!
- Fighting Infection without Antibiotics
- Natural Remedies for Ear Infections
- Real Food BRATY Diet
- How We Kicked Whooping Cough
- Natural Pneumonia Treatments For Toddlers
- Natural Remedies for Croup
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post from which I can earn a commission. See my full disclosure statement here.