Hand Sanitizers and Safety

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Wil Taylor on flickr
Earth Talk

Dear EarthTalk: My pediatrician swears by those gel hand sanitizers for lowering the risk of my family getting sick during cold and flu season. But I've also heard that these products can be dangerous to kids if ingested. Are there any safer alternatives that work just as well?
--Jason Blalock, Oakland, CA

A 2005 study by the Children's Hospital in Boston compared illness rates across a study group of 292 families—half of them got hand sanitizers while the other half were given literature advising them of the benefits of frequent hand washing. The findings revealed that those families who used hand sanitizers experienced a 59 percent reduction in gastrointestinal illnesses and that the increased use of sanitizers correlated to a decreased spread of contagions in general.

Another study conducted at Colorado State University yielded similar conclusions, that alcohol-based hand sanitizers were as much as twice as effective as either regular soap or antibacterial soap at reducing germs on human hands. A Purdue University study, however, concluded that while alcohol-based hand sanitizers may kill more germs than plain or triclosan-based soaps, they do not prevent more infections that make people sick. Instead they may kill the human body's own beneficial bacteria by stripping the skin of its outer layer of oil.

The down side of the gel/alcohol products is their danger as poison, especially for young children who may ingest the gel by licking it off their hands or eating it directly out of dispensers. Purell and Germ-X, two of the leading brands, each contain 62 percent ethyl alcohol. While this alcohol is what gives the products their germ-busting power, it also puts kids at risk of alcohol poisoning. A few squirts of the hand sanitizer—which is equivalent to124 proof booze—is enough to make a kid's blood alcohol level .10, which is the equivalent of being legally drunk in most states.

So what's a concerned parent to do? Unfortunately, the so-called greener alternatives out there aren't safe to swallow either. EO Hand Sanitizer, for example, though it uses organic lavender oil also contains alcohol to sanitize the skin surface, and would also be considered poison if a large enough amount was ingested. Similarly greener (but still not safe to eat) products are available from Avant and All Terrain.

For now, soap and warm water—and constant nagging of your kids to wash their hands—may be the safest way to sanitize. Also, make sure that any hand sanitizer dispensers you may still use are kept out of the reach of little hands.

But who knows how we'll be sanitizing our hands in the future. Researchers at Arizona State University have found that certain types of natural clays pulled right from the ground are highly effective at killing bacteria. One type of green clay has been shown to do a number on E. coli, salmonella, staph and other bacteria known to make people sick. But the research is still in its infancy, so don't expect to see moms pulling jars of clay out of their purses anytime soon.

EO Products

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Ali  E.'s picture

EO Hand Sanitizers actually contain alcohol. Putting the word 'organic' within the front of the label is an interesting marketing strategy--but when you put a match to this product, it goes up in flames just like Purell. And no matter what type of moisturizer that is added, alcohol necessarily causes dry/irritated skin. And alcohol-based sanitizers have absolutely NO germ killing power when applied to hands that are dirty. That's why our family uses alcohol-free products--and Soapopular is a our favorite.

cjsmom44's picture

I have posted on the blog for awhile now and love it here! This topic of hand sanitizers is right up my alley. For awhile now pediatricians have been recommending just plain old soap and water to sanitize....
I always been concerned for my kids with all the stuff they put in those kid body washes. So when my kids left home I started a small crafting business and I make kids glycerin soaps made from vegetable oil with no SlS or SLES, (sudsing agents) or harsh detergents. I make them is fun scents like bubble gum, grape, razzleberry etc. Makes for a safer bathtime...Check out my website:

Call me my homemaker friends and I will ship some to you. I don't process online payments yet (hopefully soon!) for now I sell them at craft fairs and local shops...

Vicky's picture

I have small children, and I've always wondered about putting something on their hands that's inedible. It shouldn't be a newsflash to any parent that children put their hands in their mouth!
There are alcohol-free products, as the other commenter mentioned.
However, I only use Cleanwell's hand sanitizer, since all the others still have some chemicals in them that I don't want my children to ingest!

TERENCE YAP's picture

Health warning: why hand sanitizers may increase risk of swine flu exposure!
May 12, 2009

Dettol is an alcohol based hand sanitizer.

Recently Q-Based Healthcare, a producer of non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers, warned: ‘alcoholic hand sanitizers increase risk of swine flu exposure’. Why can many hand sanitizers (such as the popular Dettol) cause more health problems than they prevent?

Recent news reports indicate that retail stores are seeing a dangerous reduction in the inventory levels of hand sanitizer. As more people become concerned and flock to the stores to stock up on alcohol-based hand sanitizers, a bigger crisis is being created.

Did you know that alcohol-based sanitizers work by stripping away residue from the hands, and unfortunately that includes the natural oils produced by our body? Most hand wipes and liquid hand sanitizers are alcohol based (or petroleum). The problem with these products is that Alcohol dries the skin causing cracks – creating an opening which provides a direct pathway for disease to the human bloodstream. That’s why the use of hand sanitizers may actually worsen the current major global health threat: the mexican flu (a.k.a. the swine flu)!

When a hand sanitizer includes an alcohol or a petroleum by-product, that hand wash also presents a real possibility for toxic exposure, whether it includes organic ingredients or not!

Source: PR Web

Divi's picture

Do you even know what you're talking ? i doubt if you've understood what the sole purpose of using a hand sanitiser is ? There is enough research on the internet which explains how and why a non alcoholic based sanitisers is not as effective as their counterparts. its true that the alcohol based santisers dry out the skin. But a simpler alternative to that would be to choose a brand which has an emollient in the formulation in the amounts that will not hinder the actual efficacy of the product.

David J.'s picture

Most hand wipes and liquid hand sanitizers are alcohol based (or petroleum). The problem with these products is that Alcohol dries the skin causing cracks – creating an opening which provides a direct pathway for disease to the human bloodstream. That’s why the use of hand sanitizers may actually worsen the current major global health threat: the mexican flu (a.k.a. the swine flu)!

-Dave Johansen

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