Many experts agree that keeping hands clean is one of the best ways to stay healthy, especially during cold and flu season. And while there have been concerns that germs become resistant to antibacterial soaps, germs don't become resistant to alcohol, the main ingredient in many popular hand sanitizers.
However, people should ideally wash their hands using soap and water before preparing food.
With this year’s fears of the swine flu, sales of hand sanitizers rose from $69 million a year ago to $118 million in 2009, ABC News reports. This gives you an idea of just how wildly popular these disinfectants have become.
And they do have some positive points. First off, hand washing has been proven time and again to be one of the best ways to prevent illness and infections.
But soap and water are not always available when you need to give your hands a quick cleansing.
Further, if you wash your hands too frequently you can actually extract many of the protective oils in your skin, which can cause your skin to crack and bleed. It is important to realize that your skin is actually your primary defense against bacteria -- not the soap.
It is rare for a germ on your skin to cause a problem -- it is typically only an issue when you transfer germs to your nose, mouth or an open wound like cracked skin. So obsessive-compulsive washing will likely increase your risk of getting sick by providing an entryway for potentially dangerous pathogens.
If your immune system is strong, it should be able to fight off the virus even if it does enter your body, but washing your hands provides that extra barrier of protection.
This is where hand sanitizers can be a great middle ground, allowing you to quickly disinfect your hands -- even if you don’t have access to a sink -- and, if you choose a natural, gentle variety, without damaging your skin.
However, you need to be very careful about the variety of hand sanitizer you choose, as many of the most popular varieties can be toxic to your health.
Why it’s Wise to Avoid Most Popular Hand Sanitizers
Almost half of all hand cleansers sold in the United States contain antibacterial compounds. These antibacterial compounds are not only a contributing factor to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but triclosan, the active ingredient in most antibacterial products, has been shown to kill human cells.
Those that contain alcohol as the active ingredient, instead of triclosan, are a better option, as germs don't become resistant to alcohol. However, many commercial varieties of alcohol-based hand sanitizers contain other harmful ingredients .
In fact, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database rates Purell hand sanitizer a “high hazard,” with a score of seven out of 10 (with 10 being the most toxic). They point out that ingredients used in this product are linked to:
Allergies and immunotoxicity
Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive)
Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs)
Biochemical or cellular level changes
Are There Safer Hand Sanitizer Options?
Yes, but you’ll need to become an avid label reader to find them. Look for natural, organic varieties that do not contain triclosan or other harmful ingredients, and instead contain safe plant-based ingredients such as rice bran extract, aloe vera, chamomile and tea tree oil.
Again, hand washing with plain soap and water is an ideal way to keep germs off your hands, but a safe hand sanitizer is a great back-up plan for those times when you can’t get to a sink.
What is Your BEST Line of Defense Against the Flu?
Your first line of defense against all disease-causing agents, such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses, is a strong immune system.
You can support your immune system by:
Optimizing your vitamin D levels
Getting a good night’s sleep
Minimizing stress in your life
Exercising regularly and effectively
Taking a high-quality probiotic (good bacteria)
There’s no need to walk around sporting rubber gloves and a disinfectant spray if you follow the advice above, and it is by far your most effective way to stay healthy.
When you follow the Take Control of Your Health program you are less likely to get sick in the first place.
So while it is certainly prudent to wash your hands and use safe hand sanitizers when you can’t, make sure you are using this strategy in the proper way … as a support -- not a replacement -- for a healthy lifestyle.