How clean (and safe) are cleaning products and sanitizers?
Hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and other cleaning products are marketed for their ability to kill germs and dangerous bacteria. You can find bottles of hand sanitizer in almost any bathroom, office, and doctor’s office.
Hand sanitizer is even sometimes used to replace soap in situations where hand-washing is not an option. But have you ever wondered what exactly is in hand sanitizer and if overexposure to any of the chemicals and ingredients used in these products can pose a risk to your health?
Sure, you could start by checking the ingredients list, but unfortunately there’s only so much information you can garner from a label, especially when it comes to chemicals.
Unlike food products, cleaning products aren’t as thoroughly regulated as we might hope. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only requires manufacturers of cleaning products to list agents that are active disinfectants or of “known concern.”
If cleaning companies don’t have to put an ingredient on the label, they won’t, most likely in an effort to protect trade secrets.
In her book, Green Goes With Everything, author Sloan Barnett explains that because of the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, the EPA can only force a company to prove the safety of a product if the agency has found it poses a health risk.
Testing the thousands of chemicals that go into our cleaning products would require a massive amount of resources and funding that the EPA just doesn’t have and, under the current Trump administration, isn’t likely to receive.
If the government isn’t even aware of what chemicals pose health risks and manufacturers aren’t stringently testing their products for safety, how are we as consumers supposed to be smart about what chemicals we allow in our homes?
Take Triclosan, for example. Triclosan is a common antibacterial agent added to antibacterial soaps, body washes, toothpastes, and even cosmetics. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration announced a ban on 19 active ingredients in soaps and body washes, triclosan among them, because research showed that daily exposure to triclosan in animals decreased thyroid hormone levels.
While triclosan was banned from antibacterial soaps, the ban did not extend to hand sanitizers, and so you still might be using toothpaste or cosmetics that contain triclosan.
“There’s seldom any way for you to know either what kinds of chemicals are in tub cleaner, detergent, shampoo, air freshener, nail polish, makeup, or anything else, or whether any of the ingredients are toxic,” Barnett wrote. “About the only information we’re commonly given is what the warning label on the product as a whole says — assuming it has one.”
Besides exposure to unknown harmful ingredients, there are other major risk factors that need to be addressed when we look at cleaning products. Many of these toxic and harmful products warn of potential poisoning when used incorrectly or ingested.
Hand sanitizer is a good example of a product that besides containing harmful ingredients, could also be easily misused by children due to their scents, colors, and easy availability. A good majority of hand sanitizers on the market today are alcohol based.
“Many caregivers are unaware of the very high alcohol content present in alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which can contain up to 60% to 95% alcohol,” said Cynthia Santos, MD, from CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. “Young children may inadvertently consume these hand sanitizers because of their appealing scents, like apple, vanilla, and citrus.”
Santos, along with a team of researchers, conducted a study analyzing exposure to alcohol and non-alcohol based hand sanitizers in children 12 and younger and found that exposures can range from intentional or unintentional ingestion, inhalation, or dermal and ocular exposures.
These exposures come with serious health risks and can cause apnea, irritation, nausea, and vomiting, to name a few.
Another problem with hand sanitizer aside from toxicity and potential for misuse is what the antibacterial agents do to your body’s natural germ defenses and microbiome.
One 2018 study found that a bacterium resistant to multiple drugs, Enterococcus faecium, has grown more tolerant of alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
This is a major problem since drug resistance in health care settings where hand sanitizers and disinfectants are widely used and distributed is an increasingly difficult challenge.
“We have to be careful about this new trend towards heavy reliance on alcohol-based hand sanitizers,” Lance Price, a professor at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and the founding director of GW’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, told NPR. “Soap and water should be our number-one protection,”
Hand sanitizer and many other cleaning products that tout their germ-fighting abilities can lull consumers into a sort of false sense of security, not realizing the long-term risks of exposure or if the products are doing more harm than good.
When we rub hand-sanitizer on our hands, we may be unwittingly lowering our own immunity by killing off the colonies of bacteria, both good and bad, that make up our skin’s microbiome.
“One aspect of hand sanitizers that is usually overlooked is that they can affect bodies’ microbiomes in a few ways, and some of these ways could be bad,” Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis, told Popular Science. “While they are killing potentially dangerous microbes, they are also altering the communities of beneficial bacteria on the skin.”
More research is needed to see how hand sanitizers and disinfectants impact the body’s microbiome and ability to stave off germs, but often the simplest solution is best, as nothing beats soap and water to keep your hands clean.
“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” said Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term.”
Even with soap, you might have products and brands that contain problematic ingredients which is why it’s crucial to always look at the ingredients, do your research if you’re unsure, and consider both your health and the environmental impacts when you purchase cleaning products, cosmetics, and hygiene products.