Hand Sanitizers: Good, Bad, Safe or What?

Grab it – Wipe it – Squirt it – Rub it. It’s the hand sanitizer boogie. OK, so maybe I won’t try and turn this into the next Gangnam Style dance craze. Even though, I think it already is. Hand sanitizing is a popular practice and available at grocery cart stations, banks, schools and other public places where your hand could potentially touch where someone else’s hand – or hands – has already been. And you have no idea where those hands have been before. Just the thought makes you grab the nearest available hand sanitizer, which very well could be in your pocket, jacket or purse.

The use of hand sanitizers is a practice of keeping pathogens, virus bugs and bacteria from doing their sneezing, wheezing and, sometimes, nauseating attacks on we humans and our children. Good or bad, we are a germaphobic society. The awareness that microorganisms cause illness, disease and even death has been one of the more beneficial discoveries in medicine. The question on the minds and lips of some is – have we taken it too far?

The opinion here is – yes we have. But I mostly say this because germaphobia may be unhealthy, both physically and emotionally, which has been shown by the development of seriously lethal antibiotic resistant bacteria and the stress that some people put themselves through over avoiding germs – the constant strain of disinfecting every inch of their environment. Awareness is good, paranoia to the extent of overdoing is not. In relation to hand sanitizers, there is both the good and the bad.

One of the arguments made against using hand sanitizers is that their use may inhibit the building of adaptive immunity in children. Adaptive immunity is the function of the immune system that creates a defense against parasitic microorganisms that previously have infected the body. In other words, it’s good that your children get sick. This protects them later in life.

Its debatable whether using a hand sanitizer has a strong negative effect on adaptive immunity. Research does show that the use of hand sanitizers does cut down on sick days taken by school children, but is not clear on whether this cuts down on the amount of illness children develop throughout childhood.

Triclosan. Bad. This is an antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal used in many consumer products, including hand sanitizers. The evidence is not fully in that triclosan is safe for use by humans. According to the FDA’s website “several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review. Animal studies have shown that triclosan alters hormone regulation. However, data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans. Other studies in bacteria have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.”

The good thing is, triclosan isn’t even necessary in a hand sanitizer. The main ingredient in the most effective hand sanitizers is alcohol. The content must be at least 60% ethanol (alcohol) for the product to be 99% effective.

Alcohol. Good or bad?

Pure ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is, debatably, a better choice than isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol). The issues that arise with either of these alcohols are questions of antibiotic resistance and a concern that the microbiome (beneficial microorganisms on the skin) may be affected. There appears to be no resistance developed by bacteria to alcohol – thus there are no alcohol resistant bacteria as there are antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The affect on the microbiome that alcohol has on the skin is not definitive. The concern is similar to antibiotics and their disruptive affect on the intestinal flora of the gut. The jury is still out on this one. I advise caution and a leaning toward limited, or no use of sanitizers, so as not to compromise the natural flora of the skin.

Now, let’s look at obsessive hand sanitizing. Alcohol may be drying to the skin and does interact with the lipid barrier – protective compound layer – of the skin, which provides a barrier and partial immunity to skin. In one report there showed no break down of the lipid barrier with health professionals using an alcohol based sanitizer when the sanitizer also included a moisturizer. Many sanitizers have aloe or glycerin which would count as moisturizers.

I would raise caution with constant use of alcohol sanitizers and highly recommend, if over sanitizing is called for, using a hand cream periodically throughout the day that contains similar lipids as those found in the skin’s barrier.

In hand sanitizing station stand would have to say that you should avoid anything with triclosan in it. Wash your hands often – though this may cause irritation to the skin greater than an alcohol sanitizer if the soaps are too harsh, which most are. If you must use an ethanol based alcohol sanitizer do so only when necessary. Stop being paranoid and a germaphobe, it may cause unnecessary stress.

The best advice is to support your immune system and your resistance to pathogens through a healthy diet, supplements, adequate sleep, de-stressing and a few daily drops of an essential oil like MQV diluted in massage oil and rubbed across the chest, back of the knees and feet.

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