Germaphobes rarely leave the house without their bottle of hand sanitiser in tow – and it’s easy to see why: Virtually everything we touch on a daily basis is teeming with bacteria and germs. In fact, one 2017 study published in the journal Germs assessed 27 cell phones and found a median of 17,000 bacterial gene copies per phone. And while hand sanitiser may seem like an effective on-the-go solution for ridding yourself of germs, using it too frequently can do more harm than good. Actually, it’s because hand sanitiser is so effective at killing bacteria that it’s not ideal for everyday use.
Triclosan, or TCS, is the active ingredient in some hand sanitisers. And while this ingredient does effectively strip away a myriad of microbes, one 2018 study published in the journal Environment International found that it’s just as successful at spurring the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Just 30 days of exposure to 0.2mg/L TCS can cause multi-drug resistance to E. coli.
“The triclosan found in personal care products that we use daily is accelerating the spread of antibiotic resistance,” study author Jianhua Guo explained in a press release.
SO WHAT ABOUT HAND SANITISER that use ethyl alcohol, rather than triclosan, as their active ingredient (which is most hand sanitisers)? While these are the most potent sanitisers on the market and are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol-based hand sanitisers have some serious downsides as well.
“Repeated use of anything, including hand sanitiser, can cause chronic skin irritation, skin breakdown, and damage to your kidneys and liver,” says Trevan Fischer, MD, surgical oncologist and assistant professor of surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“If you’re using very high concentrations of alcohol, it can cause dryness and cracks in the skin. Not only does it not feel good when the alcohol hits the skin, but then the skin won’t heal properly as well, never mind the damage to your internal organs” says Fischer. That’s why it’s especially important not to use alcohol-based sanitisers on injured skin.
Additionally, Fischer points to alcohol’s ability to kill off beneficial bacteria on the skin’s surface as a potential source of harm. “If you’re beating down the natural defense of the body, you could be causing some chronic risk over time as well,” he says.
That’s not the only problem with overusing alcohol-based sanitisers: one 2008 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, the topical application of ethyl alcohol can “lower the skin barrier function and render the membrane more permeable” to harmful chemicals like nitrosamines from cosmetics.
Though there are numerous downsides to using both triclosan- and alcohol-based sanitisers, none of this is to say that you can’t use these products every once in a while. Yes, washing your hands with soap and water removes debris that hand sanitiser leaves behind (including allergens like peanut proteins) with the fewest side effects. But if you’re in a pinch and need to get rid of germs ASAP, then it’s O.K. to use an emergency bottle of hand sanitiser.
According to a 2004 study published in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, for a sanitiser to be capable of killing the broadest range of pathogens it must contain 60 to 85 percent ethanol or 60 to 80 percent isopropanol or n-propanol. However, if you want to avoid the skin-damaging effects of alcohol-based sanitisers, you can always use an alcohol-free option, like OXYPRO-S (containing 3% Hydrogen Peroxide and Silver). Be forewarned, though: While most alcohol-free hand sanitisers can be effective, they are slightly less potent than their alcohol-based counterparts, so make sure it contains at least 1% hydrogen peroxide as suggested by the EPA.
Products on this list meet EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19