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Freak-Out Fridays: Is Hand Sanitizer Unhealthy?

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Q: I use hand sanitizer all the time—probably a dozen times a day. My friend told me I could be hurting my immune system by never exposing it to germs, not to mention creating superbugs that are stronger than ever. Am I doing more harm than good?

Antimicrobial hand sanitizer seems to be everywhere these days! They're certainly convenient for cleaning your hands on the go, but they do come at a price. Many of these products contain an ingredient called triclosan, which is a synthetic, broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent that has been shown in studies to not only be a hormone disruptor but also to kill only “weak” bacteria and favor the tolerant and other lineages of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, therefore contributing to the mutating “super-bugs”.

In a presentation at the 2000 Emerging Infectious Diseases Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Stuart B. Levy from Tufts University School of Medicine stated:

"The antibacterial substances added to diverse household cleaning products are similar to antibiotics in many ways. When used correctly, they inhibit bacterial growth. However, their purpose is not to cure disease but to prevent transmission of disease-causing microorganisms to non-infected persons. Like antibiotics, these products can select resistant strains and, therefore, overuse in the home can be expected to propagate resistant microbial variants”

What about alcohol-based sanitizers? They're certainly safer than triclosan-based ones, in my opinion, but plenty of studies point to the fact that soap and water are as effective as sanitizer at disinfecting the hands. The danger with alcohol-based gels is consumption. In 2006, the Association of Poison Control Centers reported more than 12,000 calls regarding ethanol exposure from hand sanitizers. Of those calls, nearly 9,600 were related to children under the age of 6. (In both of those years, there were no deaths associated with exposure to hand sanitizer, and only two cases—both adults—resulted in a major medical emergency.)

The upshot: Soap and water is best, but sanitizer will do in a pinch. If you're going to use hand gel, do so safely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say you should apply a dollop of hand sanitizer to one palm. Rub hands together, including the front and back, until they are completely dry. It should take 10 seconds or longer for the antiseptic to fully dry. The Mayo Clinic adds that you should wash or sanitize your hands before preparing food and after using the toilet and changing diapers, touching an animal, blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, treating wounds, and handling garbage.

Also bear in mind that there are amazing alternatives! Besides soap and water, you can carry around 10 drops of lavender oil mixed in 3 oz of witch hazel, as lavender has amazing antimicrobial properties. When used topically on the skin, coconut oil also has antimicrobial aspects. Plus, it moisturizes skin—and smells amazing.

Dr. Holly Lucille, a.k.a. “Dr. Holly,” is a nationally recognized health expert. She is a licensed naturopathic doctor and registered nurse, specializing in comprehensive health solutions using compassion and empowerment.

Struggling with your own quandary? Send it to freakoutfridays@marthastewart.com.

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