The Effectiveness of Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers

By Melanie Grimes –

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are used to prevent the spread of germs but may not be as effective as many believe. Further, some ingredients in these products are toxic which means that their use could cause both short and long-term side effects. Recently, the U.S Food and Drug Administration has voiced concerns and asked manufacturers to produce proof of their products’ efficacy and safety.

About Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers
Alcohol-based hand sanitizing products include gels, rubs and towelettes and are touted as being antiseptic, antibacterial and/or antimicrobial. The products contain alcohol in the form of ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Some also contain isopropyl alcohol.
Hand sanitizers in pump bottles are easy and quick to use compared to the time it takes to wash hands with soap and water. This is why many health care facilities have promoted their use, especially in situations where workers are required to wash their hands many times per hour or between frequent patient contact.

Dangers From Toxic Ingredients
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers contain ingredients that are potentially harmful and toxic. After the use of hand sanitizers, antiseptic ingredients have been found in both blood and urine.

  • Ethyl alcohol
    The active ingredient in most alcohol-based hand sanitizers is ethyl alcohol. Also known as grain alcohol, this helps increase absorption by disrupting the oils in the skin.
    Ingesting this form of alcohol can lead to drunkenness. There have been incidences of children and prison inmates licking their hands in order to get drunk, even though most of the products evaporate within seconds. Studies have demonstrated measurable levels of alcohol in the bloodstream of people using hand sanitizers.
  • Isopropyl alcohol
    Another ingredient used in the alcohol-based hand sanitizers is isopropyl alcohol. Known as rubbing alcohol, this is a known neurotoxin.
  • Phthalates
    Many alcohol-based hand sanitizers also use synthetic fragrances, which are made from phthalates. Phthalates are known to disrupt hormones.

Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizers Are Not Universally Effective

Because the overuse of antibiotics can lead to resistant bacteria, the use of antibacterial hand sanitizers can contribute to this problem. In addition, hand sanitizers may not reduce the risk of certain infections. Research on the use of hand sanitizers and prevention of diarrhea or other illnesses caused by clostridium difficile also showed that viable spores were left on the hands of healthcare workers who used these products; a vector that might actually cause the spread of disease. Another study has shown that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not effective against non-enveloped viruses, such as norovirus.

In 2011, the U. S Center for Disease Control and Prevention studied the use of these hand sanitizers in 161 healthcare facilities and concluded that the risk of contracting norovirus was six times higher in those who used alcohol-based hand sanitizers versus those who washed their hands with soap and water.

Hand Washing is More Effective than Hand Sanitizers
With a lack of evidence supporting the efficacy and potential dangerous side effects, the CDC and FDA recommend hand washing instead of using alcohol-based hand sanitizers. The agency also noted that the risk of infection is low in home settings, so the exposure to toxic ingredients is particularly unnecessary.

“Today, consumers are using antiseptic rubs more frequently at home, work, school and in other public settings where the risk of infection is relatively low,” an spokesperson for the FDA has stated. Another concern about the use of these products is that overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance.
Washing your hands for twenty seconds is still the best way to prevent the spread of germs. Soap and water, along with the related scrubbing action, is most effective.

Melanie Kornfeld Grimes is a medical writer, and a classically trained homeopath. She was adjunct professor at Bastyr University and the author of Dr. John Bastyr: Philosophy and Practice. An award-winning screenwriter and author, her essays have been published by Penguin Putnam. Her work includes college textbooks, published biographies, and work in her own imprint, Alethea Book Company, publishing books complementary, functional and integrative medicine, and homeopathy.