Before March 2020, my family and I were not regular users of hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. We would use them on occasion when access to soap and water was limited—while traveling, for example.
However, the coronavirus changed that. Now, there are tubs of name-brand disinfectant wipes strategically placed around the home that we use to wipe down frequently touched surfaces. We also keep plenty of antibacterial hand wipes stored in the glove compartment inside each vehicle. And every member of the household now carries small bottles of hand sanitizer with them.
I began to wonder if using these products daily could do more harm to my family than good. I did some personal research and looked at some of the most commonly used products:
Disinfectant wipes—They’re more than just wipes that kill germs and disinfect surfaces. Some brands contain pesticides registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, such as QACs or quats (quaternary ammonium compounds). With long-term exposure, quats and commonly used active ingredients such as bleach (or sodium hypochlorite) have been linked to health problems such as asthma. A published study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found disinfectants, including bleach and quats, were responsible for illness or injuries like eye, skin, or upper respiratory irritation in children. The research concluded that adults were affected too. However, children’s exposure during inhalation was greater because children breathe more air per pound of bodyweight than adults.
Hand sanitizing gels—The CDC recommends washing hands with regular soap and water whenever possible to reduce the amounts of germs and chemicals on hands. Suppose you do not have access to soap and water: In that case, the CDC suggests that hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol (also referred to as ethyl alcohol) be used as a last resort when soap and water are not available to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Finally, it is essential to note that all hand sanitizing gels are not the same. To know the difference, check the label. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against using hand sanitizers that may include methanol or wood alcohol, which are toxic.
Antibacterial soaps—According to the FDA, some over-the-counter antibacterial wash products contain certain chemicals (e.g., triclosan and triclocarban) concerning to the agency because manufacturers have not proven that these ingredients are safe for daily use over time and that they are more effective than plain soap. The FDA asserts that there isn’t enough science showing that antibacterial soaps are better than regular soap. Additionally, there is a chance that triclosan may aid in making individuals bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which could impact medical treatments, specifically with the use of prescribed antibiotics used to fight infection.
Scientists have cautioned that overuse of alcohol-based sanitizing gels and disinfecting products may give consumers a false sense of security and create superbugs that could threaten public health. The CDC and many health experts agree that following basic handwashing practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of illness and disease.
The California Department of Consumer Affairs licenses health care professionals in a variety of categories. You can verify the license status of a professional using DCA’s License Search tool: https://search.dca.ca.gov.