As flu germs circulate this fall, many of us are toting a bottle of hand sanitizer along with our keys, wallet, and other pocket staples. And while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using alcohol-based sanitizing wipes and gels when you can't wash your hands with regular soap and water, it's important to take a little time to read the label before you grab just any old hand sanitizer off the store shelf.
Some contain harmful antimicrobial chemicals like triclosan that harm your thyroid, and contaminate water. What's worse, triclosan doesn't always kill off all the germs on your hands, and can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
The 3 Worst Products in Your Bathroom
In addition to triclosan, store-bought hand sanitizers can be polluted with synthetic fragrances that could contain chemicals called phthalates, which research has linked to reproductive problems. They can also contain questionable preservatives and other harsh solvents like PEG, which is often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a suspected carcinogen.
Bond suggests that after you use up that store-bought sanitizer in your medicine cabinet, save the bottle and fill it with your own. Follow this recipe to mix up an effective germ-killing blend:
2 ounces vodka
4 to 5 drops essential oil such as tea tree or eucalyptus, or a combination
2 teaspoons witch hazel
Mix well, and pour into your bottle.
When choosing a pure essential oil to use, research the company that makes it. Pick one that explains its distillation process—some companies use solvents, so you want to avoid them. To test your essential oil, drop a dab on a piece of blotting paper. If it evaporates without leaving a stain, it's pure, Bond says.
The Worst Cleaners in America
Safer, Store-Bought Sanitizers
When you do need to buy, rather than make, a hand sanitizer, you can still avoid toxic chemicals without sacrificing germ-killing power. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Alcohol-based hand sanitizers should contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective in killing germs. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database ranks EO Hand Sanitizers and Wipes, found online or at Whole Foods, as among the safest alcohol-based hand sanitizers. The products contain organic alcohol and a plant-based germ-killer.
• Look for other natural hand sanitizer ingredients, including witch hazel and naturally antibiotic essential oils, such as lavender, tea tree, rosemary and thyme oils. We like CleanWell brand, which uses a proprietary, plant-based essential oil blend, mainly thyme oil, to kill more than 99 percent of germs without alcohol. You can find Cleanwell All-Natural Hand Sanitizers on Amazon.com, or in Target, Whole Foods, Babies "R" Us, GNC, Wegmans, and other stores.
• Remember to moisturize. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers dry out your skin, so it's important to moisturize, too. A nontoxic, fragrance-free moisturizer like Badger Balm Organic Healing Balm works great, or you can make your own antiviral hand lotion that won't dry out your mitts. Bond suggests mixing 4 ounces of hand lotion with 10 drops of eucalyptus or cinnamon oil. Stir and blend, and store in a glass jar.
• Sometimes, you just have to lather up. Hand sanitizers don’t work so well if you have dirt or grime on your hands; the gunk keeps them from getting to your skin. So when your hands are dirty, find a sink and wash them.
• Consider carrying your own soap, too. Bond says many "soaps" in public restrooms are actually detergents, and don't pack the germ-busting qualities of regular soap. Many commercial soaps also contain triclosan and synthetic fragrances that are bad for the environment and can irritate people's lungs. To combat this, find a good bar of fragrance-free soap, or even real, homemade soap sold at a local heath-food store. Or carry a little bottle of Dr. Bronner's castile soap with you.