Winter is almost here, and flu and colds are rising along with the chilly winds. Experts advise avoiding illness by washing your hands on a regular basis, and using hand sanitizer when a good scrub with soap and water isn't handy. But could using hand sanitizers do more harm than good? While hand sanitizers do kill germs, they also have a dark side that can cause other health problems. They include:
1. Triclosans. Triclosans in hand sanitizers prevent the growth of bacteria, but they may do much more harm than good. The FDA says they're contributing to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, and helping create superbugs such as MRSA. Triclosan, which degrades to dioxins in the body, has a long list of health red flags. A 2014 study by the American Chemical Society found that triclosans spurred the growth of breast cancer cells, and studies at the University of California at Davis found they can kill brain cells. Numerous additional studies have found it interferes with hormones.
2. Parabens. Hand sanitizers often contain chemicals called parabens that prevent the growth of bacteria. They've been linked to a host of dangerous health problems including cancer, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruptions, and skin irritation. Avoid labels that include these common parabens: ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben.
3. Alcohol. Hand sanitizers contain about 65 percent ethyl alcohol — pure alcohol — and some of it is absorbed into the skin. Research has found alcohol in the blood stream of people who used hand sanitizers, and children have been known to lick enough from their hands to become drunk. Alcohol from the sanitizers can also be absorbed through inhaling its vapors. Many hand sanitizers also contain isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) which is a petrochemical that's a known neurotoxin. It is also absorbed through the skin and is toxic even in small doses. Together, the two types of alcohol can comprise up to 95 percent of a hand sanitizer's volume. Alcohol-free sanitizers aren't a safe substitute, either, because they also contain toxic ingredients such as benzalkonium chloride, which has been linked to immune dysfunction and hypersensitivity, which can cause asthma and chronic dermatitis.
In addition, alcohol can break down the protective outer layers of skin and allow chemicals, like those found in the hand sanitizer itself, such as parabens, to penetrate the skin easier, as well as chemicals such as BPA found on cash register receipts. In a recent study published in PLoS ONE, researchers found that volunteers who held thermal receipt papers after using sanitizers absorbed up to 100 times more chemicals those who hadn't used them.
4. Fragrance. Fragrant hand sanitizers usually indicate chemicals, which are often toxic. Since the ingredients of fragrances are considered proprietary information and are virtually unregulated, you have no way of knowing the chemicals that you'll be putting on your skin. Many contain phthalates to make the fragrance last longer, but they are known endocrine disrupters. According to the Environmental Working Group, fragrances have been linked with allergies, respiratory distress, dermatitis, and possible effects on the reproductive system. If you choose to use a hand sanitizer, choose one that's unscented.
5. Antibiotic resistance. Hand sanitizers and similar products are increasing the development of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. If you still want to use a hand sanitizer, choose one that isn't labeled "antibacterial."
6. Immune system. Hand sanitizers may affect your immune system by killing good bacteria which keep disease-causing bacteria at bay. A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that healthcare workers who routinely used hand sanitizers increased their risk of developing norovirus by almost 600 percent.
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