Hand washing with soap is considered the first line of defense for hygiene, but when that option isn’t available, hand sanitizers are a big help. The first thing to consider when shopping for hand sanitizer is the active ingredient, which is the ingredient that performs the sanitizing.
Getting Started: Choosing a Safer Active Ingredient
Ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are deemed safer options for active ingredients. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the CDC recommend sanitizers containing alcohol at concentrations of at least 60 percent.
Although ethyl and isopropyl alcohols are likely safer options, in 2017 the FDA deferred a final ruling on the safety of these alcohols (along with another common ingredient, benzalkonium chloride) in order to fill data gaps. This means that the FDA could still change this ruling in the future as more research is made available. It should be noted these products should never be ingested and children should use supervised.
Next Step: Choosing Safer Inactive Ingredients
Hand sanitizers contain additional ingredients beyond just the active ingredients – these are called inactive ingredients and may be listed separately on the label. Follow along with us as we explore the health concerns associated with some of the other ingredients commonly found in hand sanitizers and how to shop for better options.
The Health Concerns
- Artificial Dyes are commonly derived from petroleum and can be added to foods, cosmetics, and personal care products such as hand sanitizers. You may recognize dyes on the packaging of conventional products as one of the few words on the ingredient list you can recognize and pronounce! Examples are Blue 1, Red 40, and Yellow 5. Despite their friendly spelling, they have been linked to harmful effects including hastened dermal absorption in damaged skin, allergic reactions, and hyperactivity when ingested. Unfortunately, big data gaps remain in the literature on artificial dyes, so applying the precautionary principle (aka: skipping ingredients without enough information), it may be best to avoid them when possible.
- Parabens are ingredients utilized to preserve products. Extending the shelf life of an item is a good thing, but unfortunately using parabens to prevent the growth of microorganisms also carries some toxicity concerns. For example, parabens are endocrine disrupting chemicals and have been associated with breast cancer and reproductive harm. They can be spotted on packaging by looking for the suffix “paraben” on the ingredient label (ethylparaben, isopropylparaben, etc.).
- Polyethylene Glycol Compounds (PEGs) are utilized for their thickening, softening, and penetration-enhancing properties. They are found in a wide range of consumer products including hand sanitizers. PEG compounds are created by a process called ethoxylation, which means that they are likely contaminated with carcinogens like ethylene oxide and/or 1,4 dioxane. Since these contaminants are not intentionally added ingredients, but rather by-products of the manufacturing process, they will not be labeled on the ingredient label.
- Compounding the contamination issue is the fact that the penetration-enhancing effect of some PEGs can allow increased absorption of other potentially harmful ingredients in any product’s given formulation.
- The best way to avoid PEGs and their possible contaminants is to avoid products with “PEG” listed on the ingredient list, usually as “PEG” followed by a number (Ex: PEG-40). In case you’re an ingredient geek, the number after “PEG” correlates with the number of moles – a standard scientific unit of measurement – of ethylene oxide added to the compound during the ethoxylation process.
- Undisclosed Fragrance – Companies are not required to disclose their fragrance formulations on packaging, which means that “fragrance” on packaging could potentially be a cocktail of hundreds of ingredients. Though some ingredients may be harmless, it’s best to avoid undisclosed fragrances because some common fragrance ingredients are known to cause harm, such as phthalates and synthetic musks. Without the ingredients listed, we can’t know what’s inside.
Tips for Choosing a Safer Hand Sanitizer
- Opt for alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain simple non-active ingredients such as water, plant oils, and glycerin
- Avoid formulations containing PEGs – look for “PEG” on ingredient labels, typically followed by a number (ex: PEG-40)
- Bypass products that contain parabens, ingredients ending in -paraben (e.g., ethylparaben)
- Try to avoid products that use artificial dyes (e.g., Yellow 5)
- Don’t use products that list “fragrance” or “parfum”
- Shop for products vetted by a trusted third-party verification such as MADE SAFE that requires full ingredient disclosure.