Skin Deep

Is your hand sanitizer safe?

What did we do before hand sanitizer? We washed our hands more.

I find it interesting how this product has become a mainstay for so many people. I see it everywhere, from the supermarket to the gym, and even at my local frozen yogurt shop. As a doctor, I’m all for germ control, but taking this easy way out instead of turning to soap and water may have some detrimental side effects.

The FDA has deemed triclosan (the active ingredient in some hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps) to be safe, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t controversy surrounding its safety. Purell, for the record, is alcohol-based and does not contain triclosan.

But many anti-bacterial soaps do, and there is concern over whether this ingredient may promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. Other studies have found triclosan in human urine, plasma and breast milk, which makes us wonder what other effects it may have in our bodies. After recent research showed triclosan may alter hormone regulation, the FDA has pledged to take a closer look, and perhaps change its stance on this ingredient.

Aside from the health concerns we’ve mentioned, hand sanitizer can send eczema and other forms of dermatitis into overdrive. These skin conditions are uncomfortable on their own, but the addition of hand sanitizer can leave these patients with red, dry and sore skin. I’ve also had many patients tell me that hand sanitizer leaves their skin feeling dry, but foaming soap strips the skin of more natural oils than hand sanitizer. The best solution for any hand dryness is to apply a heavy cream after washing, such as Cetaphil, or wear gloves whenever possible.

If you’re on the fence about triclosan, there are effective alternatives that can eliminate germs when a real hand-washing just isn’t an option. VMV Hypoallergenics Grandma Minnie’s Kid Gloves Monolaurin Hand Sanitizer is safe and gentle for all skin types and conditions, and it’s also appropriate for pregnant and nursing moms. Just remember to check the labels of all of your antibacterial soaps and products, including cleaners you use in your home. These days it’s easy to find triclosan-free products—all you have to do is look for them.

Dr. Leslie Baumann is a board-certified dermatologist, New York Times best-selling author and CEO of Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami.

A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that Purell contained triclosan. It does not.