Hand sanitizer has always been a convenient substitute for traditional hand washing in a pinch. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become an essential (like face coverings) that many people don’t leave their homes without. Because of hand sanitizer, we feel more comfortable doing everyday tasks like filling our gas tanks or grabbing takeout. Anyone who has applied the stuff consistently throughout the day, however, knows that it can have drying and irritating effects on the skin.
Hand Washing vs. Hand Sanitizer
First things first: it’s important to understand the difference between washing your hands and sanitizing them. Using antibacterial hand sanitizer was inevitable in 2020. And it’s here to stay for at least part of 2021, too. But that’s not to say hand sanitizer can replace hand washing.
If you have access to soap and water, then you absolutely should wash your hands the old fashioned way. “It's always better to wash with soap and water and to apply a moisturizer immediately after,” says Amy Spizuoco, DO, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. As helpful as hand sanitizer can be in eliminating germs, it can’t remove grime in the same way washing can.
There are certainly situations, however, in which hand sanitizer is the only option. “If you don't have quick access to soap and water, be sure to use hand sanitizer after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, before eating food, after using the bathroom, and before touching your face at all,” advises Dendy Engelman, MD, a New York City-based board certified dermatologist.
With this background in mind, read on for hand sanitizer tips from two dermatologists:
Tip 1: Moderation Is Key
Hand sanitizer is in most of our purses, backpacks, and cars... for good reason. As we live our ‘new normal,’ we often find ourselves in situations with dirty hands and without access to soap and running water. Fortunately, we have hand sanitizer to kill germs and move on with our day with peace of mind. In most instances, using an antimicrobial hand sanitizer is totally okay and recommended. Occasional use of hand sanitizers is harmless, but obsessive or frequent use can damage the skin.
One of the sensitizing culprits is alcohol, which can cause dryness and skin irritation. “The types of alcohol found in hand sanitizers — ethyl alcohol (ethanol) or isopropyl alcohol — can be harsh and irritating for the skin,” Dr. Engelman explains. “But that's unfortunately the trade off for killing germs!”
The three main active ingredients in hand sanitizers (ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and benzalkonium chloride) are under safety review by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but are generally recognized as safe and effective. The FDA banned the ingredient triclosan from hand sanitizers in 2017 due to potential health risks (some as serious as skin cancer and antibiotic resistance).
While there are some side effects of using hand sanitizer, there is one myth our dermatologists are here to bust. Despite what is commonly believed, sanitizer does not make skin more sensitive to UV light and susceptible to sun damage. “Some think it’s because the alcohol in hand sanitizers dry out and thin the skin, but this doesn't actually make your skin more sensitive to UV,” Dr. Spizuoco says. Even so, sun protection should already be a part of your hand care routine. “It is always a good idea to use a moisturizer with sunscreen every day on hands that are exposed to the sun,” she adds.
Tip 2: Use a Dermatologist-Approved Hand Sanitizer
Not all hand sanitizer is created equal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends alcohol contents of at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol (ethanol) or 70 percent isopropyl alcohol for hand sanitizers. But that’s not to say the formula can’t also include some skin-soothing extras.
To combat the harsh alcohols, Dr. Engelman recommends choosing a formula that also contains nourishing ingredients. “There are gentler hand sanitizers that are formulated with hydrating ingredients, like aloe vera, so they are less harsh on your skin — especially as we're all using them more these days,” she says. Below are two of her go-to hand sanitizer brands:
- CBD for Life: “I love CBD for Life products, so I was excited when they came out with hemp seed extract-infused hand sanitizers,” she says. “They come in gel and spray in different sizes, so you can pick what is most convenient for you.” The formulas contain 70 percent ethanol alcohol, in addition to hemp seed extract and aloe leaf juice.
- Touchland: “These hand sanitizers are not only cute, but they come in eight different fragrances, so you don't have to worry about the overpowering alcohol smell,” Dr. Engelman shares. They contain 67 percent ethyl alcohol, plus aloe vera and essential oils, to keep skin sanitized and moisturized without a sticky film.
While some hand sanitizers might be better at combatting dry skin, all sanitizers have the same goal: Kill harmful bacteria. Dr. Engelman says it’s important to check the alcohol concentration on your bottle to ensure it meets the CDC minimums.
Tip 3: Don’t Forget to Moisturize
Whether you’re washing your hands or applying hand sanitizer, keeping your skin hydrated is essential (check out our guide to dermatologist-approved hand creams). “I recommend having moisturizer right next to hand soap at the sink and keeping a travel-size moisturizer with you at all times,” Dr. Spizuoco shares.
And remember: there is no such thing as too much moisturizing. “Moisturize as many times as you wash your hands a day — or more,” she says. This is especially true for frequent hand sanitizer users. “There's really nothing you can avoid in hand sanitizers,” she explains. “What makes them work is the alcohol, and that is always the culprit that dries out the hands.”
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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