Hand Sanitizer Safety


Since posting yesterday’s review of antibacterial soap use, I have received two emails plus a comment asking for clarification on the use of hand sanitizer lotions and germ killing wipes. Specifically I was asked about the wipes now found in most grocery stores to clean off the handles of grocery carts before you use them and also about the pump dispensers filled with the germ killing hand lotion so common in office settings.

These products do not have the same issues as the antibiotic soaps. They kill germs directly, without the chance of creating the super bugs that many of us worry about. The lotions usually contain alcohol, the sanitizing wipes can contain alcohol or, like the product pictured here, bleach. If you are using these in your home or workplace, I would make sure that what you purchase does not contain an antibiotic like triclosan. Look at the ingredients and also at the label for things like “kills germs on contact”, etc. If you see an ingredient you don’t recognize, and can not verify it is not an antibiotic, feel free to ask about in a comment here. I’ll find out what it is.

Do you know any of the listed ingredients on the Clorox wipes label? Note how over 99% is “other ingredients”. It may be because Clorox claims those “other ingredients” are trade secrets. The law allows companies to use generic terms on labels if disclosing ingredients would “compromise” trade secrets. I guess the regulators have not considered that allowing ingredients to be hidden might “compromise” the ability of consumers to make informed purchasing decisions!

Even though I am showing a picture of the bleach wipes, let’s look specifically at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s product Purell as that is the biggest selling hand sanitizer. Purell’s active ingredient is 62% ethyl alcohol. Alcohol kills germs on contact, and then evaporates rapidly into the air. The fast evaporation and the common, long term, use of alcohol in health care, is why the products remind people of the hospital or doctor’s office. The “inactive” ingredients in Purell are: Water, Glycerin, Isopropyl Myristate, Propylene Glycol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Aminomethyl Propanol, Carbomer, Fragrance (parfum). I would be hesitant to use much of this, not because of the alcohol, but because of the secondary ingredients. Just for fun, and to show the importance of paying attention to what we put in or on our bodies, let’s look at each of the “inactive” ingredients separately. We will skip water!

Glycerin: In its pure chemical state, it is glycerol, which is an alcohol. In the impure state used in products like these it is called glycerin. It is a solvent that when added to water, softens the skin. Glycerin is “thought” to be very safe, even being used in many commercial food products.

Isopropyl myristate: This is used in personal hygiene products when good absorption through the skin is desired. It is also in products used to treat head lice. It does the job by dehydrating the lice and dissolving their waxy coating, allowing chemicals to penetrate and kill them.

Propylene Glycol: This is another alcohol, described as being used as a moisturizer, lubricant, and solvent. It is approved by the FDA for use in cosmetics and food. Interestingly, the FDA does not consider it safe enough to use in cat food. And to think I thought it was only used as antifreeze!

Tocopheryl Acetate: This is vitamin E, more specifically, its acetic acid salt.

Aminomethyl Propanol: A nitrogen based alcohol which mixes with water and other alcohols. It is used as an emulsifier in cosmetic lotions and creams. (Double click on “emulsifier”, or any other word, to try out the new Answer Tips plugin I am using.)

Carbomer: If I remember my chemistry correctly, technically a carbonmer is anything that has had 2 carbon atoms inserted into its molecular chain. As used here, it is a trade name for a thickener added to hand lotions.

Fragrance: This is one to watch out for in some products and I am working on another article specifically on this topic. “Fragrance” is a catch-all term for all the chemicals used to scent a product. It sounds harmless, but sometimes hides many dangerous compounds. Like on the Clorox label, the reason the law allows companies to avoid listing the ingredients in their fragrances is that they are considered trade secrets. It is sort of odd that Pfizer puts “parfum” in parenthesis after listing fragrance. Parfum is just the French word for perfume.

In summary, I don’t use these types of products very often although I have been known to clean the handle of a grocery cart or two. I don’t think they pose any huge danger and the idea that they provide some protection from common cold and flu viruses does have merit. Liquid hand sanitizers are almost universally used in hospital and newborn nursery settings. Many offices are also beginning to use these products as they do kill germs and help to prevent these cold germs and viruses from being transferred from your fingers when you use the copy machine, then rub your eyes, pick your n…, well you get the idea.

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Will Sig
1 Anna

Hi Will, this is an excellent post, and thanks for doing all this research. I don’t use much of any chemicals at home, just dishwasher soap and regular soaps, and now when shopping I have gloves all the time (just because I am cold all the time, lol), then who knows what hides in my gloves now, lol. I have Purell, but it only used if we are out and eating out, so may be once or twice a month.

However, I noticed something yesterday, and I was thinking this should be interesting to mention to Will. We went for a cake for my 1 year old godson, and obviously he got some cool toys from Leap Frog or other brands. Well Michael, likes to chew on everything. And his mother is at the point that she said to me don’t worry, he just chews on everything and I cannot stop him, especially when I saw him licking all the toys he got and mentioning to her. Well grandparents also did not resisted, which was odd, because they usually very good with that stuff.
Well I know why, the toys were approved, and there was no warnings. However, they forget one aspect, when these toys are on the shelves in stores, every customer who passes by touches them, presses buttons etc, and then they give it to kid without washing. I tell you this kid really cleaned up that drum stick very well. So it will be nice to have some organic wipes where toys can be cleaned by parents, or stores should have one display toy and the rest at least closed in the boxes. I think you will agree with me on this, atleast some of it.

BTW I have also tagged you with Proudest Moment of My Life. I read your bio so I don’t think there will be a surprise, but I love to hear from you and what you have to say.



2 Will

Hi Anna! Thanks for the great comment. Regarding Michael and his chewing…. There is some evidence that children develop an stronger immune system when not prevented from playing in the dirt etc. Part of growing up is being exposed to all the germs and stuff. Maybe Michael is an early reader and looked up some of the research?

By the way – I left a comment on your site and noticed that Blogger, (Google), has changed the way they allow comments. There is no longer a link in the name when you post if you don’t use a Google account. I read about this change on BlogCatalog. Big mistake by Google. If I had a Google Blogger Blog, I would be very mad!



3 Anna

Hi Will, may be Michael is, lol. He is very smart kid for one year old, and almost walking too, and he loves cars. I agree with you that kids do develop better immune system towards germs and stuff? when playing in dirt, however, I don’t mind germs in the dirt, but I do mind other stuff which we may not even know what it is, chemicals probably. I don’t really trust the quality control on any of these things and what materials they are made off, and due to recent recalls just scares me what kids can be chewing on these days. I rather them go out and chew on the leaf, but then everything is sprayed too. So it is hard to win today. BTW when we hike we often pass by the crab apple trees, and I love those, but then my husband is really conscious about this stuff and never lets me eat them, sometimes I feel like I live in the bubble, which I sometimes I poke with the needle, lol, and I poke my husband’s one too, lol.

So thanks about the blogger update, I don’t like many things what google does or doesn’t, but we need many to fight the giant.

Thanks, Anna 🙂


4 Will

Even though I subscribe to the idea that a kid playing outside in the dirt will grow up healthier, there were times when I drew the line. I remember when the kids were real little and they would be sitting in the shopping cart and would want to get their teeth and tongues on the handle. Guess they like the salty taste from everyone’s hands! Yecckk! I did not let them do that! On the other hand, I have a few pictures of them from 2, 3 or 4 years old where they look so dirty, it almost looks like child neglect. In reality they were just outside playing and getting down and dirty with nature! That I was OK with. (And it all washed off just fine!)



5 Anna

Will this is amazing, I think my memory is improving, because I feel like I know all the posts on you blog, lol. Anyway, the other day I was thinking about something else, that I think is worth mentioning. BTW thanks for the last comment, I still remember my sister sitting in the bucket with dirty potatoes, just so she can play in the water, or my neighbour kid playing in the rain paddle in the middle of the road (it was small town). But what I wanted to say is about washing newly purchased clothes. I used to be notorious wearing clothes straight from the store, but I don’t know if it is lately, I hate the smell, and I remember once watching on CSI how a girl got sick from jeans she was wearing that came from overseas. I think this is another issue that many neglect, it may not be the chemicals or dies that make the clothing, but anything can be picked up from transportation or handling. Anna 🙂


6 Will

I always wash any clothes I get before I wear them. It is just an old habit, but now I have a good reason for it! Thanks!


7 Justin

just a little added information

propylene glycol is NOT antifreeze…..you’re thinking of ethylene glycol which has one less carbon and a different chemical structure

HOWEVER BOTH are unfit for use in cat (or any) food because they are poisonous when ingested, causing severe damage to the liver and kidneys


8 Will

Hi Justin – Thanks for the comment. I remember reading that Propylene glycol is actually used as a less toxic alternative to the most common antifreeze. Can’t find that now, but Wikipedia also lists one of its uses as antifreeze. It does seem that its most common use is as a lubricant and as a solvent.

In any case you are right that it has no place in food, or in my opinion in anything applied to the skin.


9 Justin

I have been doing a large amount of research into hand sanitizers lately, as it is the topic of my research proposal for college. In my search for solutions to provide i have come across 2 very interesting things:

1. According to Dr. Huber, Microbiology PhD, of WVSU no known pathogens can survive or are resistant to bleach (including AIDS,SARS, etc)…so it is still the only sanitizer in my house.

2. The recent invention of a 100% Botanical sanitizer is child friendly, pet safe, and just as effective as today’s chemical hand sanitizers.

Just thought you might like to know about it =].


10 Will

Thanks for that Justin. The Cleanwell site looks great!


11 Suzanne

Dropping in from work – can’t you tell from my commentluv 😀

I just had to say that we use handwipes at work all the time. We wipe our keyboards when switching desks. However, I wouldn’t really want to clean a childn’s toy with a hand wipe. Think about it – the one or two types of alcohol evaporate…what about the other chemicals? And, what happens when you mix these chemicals – and a child eats them? Just something to think about.


12 Den Ford

What a brilliant post, inthe UK I have never come across sanitizer wipes to use for a supermarket trolley, what a fantastic idea, there is so much hype given to health and safety everywhere and this is a really good gesture on the part of the food stores to care to customer hygiene and well being


13 Keith

I do not use the hand sanitizers, but I do wash my hands often with soap (bar) and water. I also do not touch my face or other parts with hands that have been on a shopping cart.

Will, I intend to implement your idea of wiping down the cart handles. That seems like a reasonable compromise. Much more acceptable to me than putting those chemicals on my hands. Thanks.


14 Will

Hi Keith – I was talking to a man at one of our local big groceries a few days ago. He was resupplying the wipes provided by their shopping carts that customers can use to clean the cart handles before shopping. He said they go through tons of them and when they run out they hear IMMEDIATELY from customers that they need to re-stock. It is one of the most popular customer service things they have ever implemented.


15 Tristan

Good info, Will, thanks. I think that many of your readers may be interested to know that almost no pathogen can survive more than 15 minutes outside a human body, even less if it’s cold or hot outside. This includes environments commonly thought to be very germy, such as toilet seats and doorknobs. The kinds of bacteria and viruses that make people sick are too well adapted to the human body to survive much of anyplace else.


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