During any typical cold and flu season, it’s common to see increased recommendations for hand washing with antibacterial soaps, and using hand sanitizers more often. During a pandemic scare as we’re currently experiencing with COVID-19, people are washing their hands even more often and hand sanitizers are scarce. This has led to empty store shelves, skyrocketing prices of what was once inexpensive soaps and sanitizers; and worst of all, red knuckles and sore, dry, chapped hands.
But what is all this over-washing and over-sanitizing doing to our hands–and our health?
First off, hand washing to avoid spread of pathogens is important–especially when in public places. Hand washing with soap for 20 seconds, in many studies, has shown to be more effective than hand sanitizers. It is also less skin irritant, and presents less risk of allergy.
However, the use of antibacterial hand soaps and hand sanitizers does come with risk.
Hand sanitizers are mostly made up of alcohol (even natural ones, which are typically a 75:25 ratio of ethyl or isopropyl alcohol:aloe vera or glycerin with added antimicrobial essential oils) with a small percentage of a humectant, and often additional antibacterial agents added. The agent most commonly used up until its FDA ban in hand sanitizers (and antibacterial soaps, lotions, body washes, etc) was triclosan.
However triclosan is still present in certain antibacterial soaps, lotions, hand sanitizers, and other personal care products on the market.
Other ways hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps put hand health at risk:
In addition to the triclosan concern, hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps put hand health at risk in other ways. They contain strong synthetic fragrances which cause allergies, irritation and potential contact dermatitis, and synthetic emollients which can suffocate the skin.
Another big concern is that of pH. Soaps and sanitizers are alkaline by nature (pH of soap is usually around a 9, sanitizer is 7-8), and skin is slightly acidic by nature (normal range is 4.5-5.5). Water itself is also more alkaline than the skin–so increased hand washing with alkaline soaps in water (and even using hand sanitizers without water) can throw off the skin’s pH. Most “non-soap” hand washes are still skin irritant, because they are still too alkaline, and they contain surfactants that separate oils from the skin without replacing them.
What this does is harm the skin’s barrier in several ways. First, it strips away the skin’s lipid layer. One of the skin’s biggest jobs is to act as a barrier, preventing external invaders from passing through and getting inside our bodies. Its layer of natural oils, ceramides, and other lipids is one major way the skin performs that function. Washing away that layer with soap or harsh surfactants (or dissolving it with alcohol in hand sanitizers) weakens that barrier. It also causes skin dryness which could lead to inflammation or cracks in the skin, which opens us up to potential infection.
The other way over-washing and over-sanitizing affects the skin is that it can harm the skin’s microbiome. This diverse ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and fungi that live on and in our bodies help protect us from pathogens. The microbes that live on the skin require that slightly acidic pH in order to live and thrive. Many also require either a moist or oily environment. Over-washing and sanitizing literally takes away their home, leaving our hands–the part of us that comes into contact with potential pathogens most often–the MOST SUSCEPTIBLE to pathogen invasion.
How can we keep our hands clean and protected and avoid the red, cracked knuckles?
We need to keep washing our hands, that’s a given. But instead of the harsh, stripping commercial and antibacterial ones on the market, I recommend using a gentle castile soap-based foaming hand wash (look for one that is pH balanced and fragrance-free or scented only with essential oils). I like this better than straight bar soap or concentrated liquid soap because it’s a lower pH, and still effective when diluted.
After hand washing, I recommend immediately applying a rich hand cream, butter, or balm that contains plenty of nourishing oils (olive oil, hemp seed oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, etc). Make sure your hand moisturizer is also free from synthetic fragrances/perfume.
I recommend oil-based hand creams, butters, and balms over water-based lotions, because most lotions are pH-balanced to a 7, which is still too alkaline for the skin. In addition, any product containing water also has to contain a preservative or strong antimicrobial system in order to be safe. What this does is bring your skin into contact with yet ANOTHER substance (usually a combination of a few) that could potentially disrupt the skin’s microbiome.
Use this moisturizer between washings too, and slather a thick coating on hands at night, before bed. If at all possible, sleep with light cotton or bamboo gloves to keep the emollients on the surface of the skin all night.
I recommend avoiding hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes unless you absolutely have no other option.
Following these simple hand care strategies will help soothe those red knuckles, and ease chapped, sore hands. It will also help maintain the integrity of the skin’s lipid barrier, AND protect those happy little microbial helpers that we need now more than ever to help keep us safe and healthy.
I offer my recommendations for non-toxic hand care products in this blog post. OR…
If you want to make your own…
I offer a great DIY hand care online mini-course called the My Clean Hands DIY Hand Care Course for just $27. In this course, you’ll learn to make your own all natural, soothing, safe, and effective soap-based foaming hand wash, hand sanitizer (there are two recipe options for that), and lotion stick. Get instant access to that HERE.
I recommend customizing them using the antimicrobial herbs and oils I showed in my Instagram TLC for Hands story highlight.