Why Your Hand Sanitizer Doesn’t Stop the Flu (And Might Make You Sick)

Hand Sanitizer

Despite my longtime annoyance with Purell-toting moms, once I had my own children I found myself–to my horror–becoming something of a germaphobe. When my sons are sick, we all suffer–they miss school, I can’t work, and no one sleeps. I’m judicious with the use of fever reducers and painkillers (here’s why), so some level of misery is inevitable. And in New York City, it’s hard to ignore how much exposure the kids have to germy surfaces, especially as babies (when mine can typically be found gumming the nearest subway pole). So, while you won’t see me with Purell in the sandbox, I have been known to surreptitiously spritz my kids’ hands with a natural sanitizer before they eat their snacks, hoping no onlookers are judging me.

Are Antibacterial Products Toxic?

Most antibacterial products are decidedly toxic. Triclosan is the most popular ingredient in antibacterial hand- and dish-soaps, and lots of research has shown it to be an endocrine disruptor, with some studies suggesting it may also be harmful to the immune system. Worse, bacteria that’s been exposed to triclosan is likely to become resistant to antibiotics, leading to the emergence of so-called superbugs. And get this: triclosan only works against bacteria—not viruses! And while obviously we want to protect our kids from salmonella, I suspect many of us use sanitizing soaps, wipes, and sprays with the hopes of staving of influenza and other miserable viruses.

The good news is that triclosan will not be found in any leave-on sanitizers (like Purell, which uses alcohol to do it’s germ-killing job). The bad news is that products like Purell have other problematic ingredients, like retinyl palmitate, which may create free radicals when exposed to sunlight, and propylene glycol, which is linked to cancer and reproductive damage. Any scented hand sanitizer likely contains hormone-disrupting phthalates, and while the ethanol (alcohol) isn’t so bad in itself, it enhances the penetration of the other ingredients.

Do Hand Sanitizers Prevent Illness?

If you’re thinking that the risks of small amounts of these ingredients is worth the benefits of sparing your family from nasty illnesses, this may change your mind: while alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill flu and other viruses in a lab setting, in actual practice they seem to be pretty ineffective. Most studies show no reduced risk of infection with the use of hand sanitizers, perhaps because most upper respiratory infections (like the flu) are more likely to be spread via airborne droplets—from sneezing and coughing–than from touching germy surfaces.

The Bottom Line on Hand Sanitizers

There is very good reason to wash your hands after using the bathroom (obviously) and before eating. Studies have consistently shown soap and water to be more effective than hand sanitizers at removing germs from hands. Need another reason? Sudsing up removes a host of environmental toxins—from flame retardants to heavy metals to pesticides—that you and your children have likely touched while going about your day. My kids definitely know to wash their hands whenever they come home after a long day out and about in the city, and before they prepare or eat food. I continue to carry a natural hand sanitizer in my bag for times when we can’t get to a bar of soap before they eat, but I’ve relaxed enough to let my 4-year-old hold onto the subway pole, even if another kid has just sneezed all over it.

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  • Kathy Cox

    What about just using hand wipes like “Wet Ones”? Wouldn’t that be more effective?

  • gman

    Just use cheap Vodka and carry in the hand sanitizer. No problems!!!