Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” hand sanitizer, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
In 2020, hand sanitizer sales increased 600% as Americans tried to mitigate germ-spread from Covid-19. We all remember the days when the gloop was a precious commodity. Now that supply has finally caught up to demand, it’s time to get wise about which hand sanitizer to choose.
What to Be Wise On:
According to the Food and Drug Administration, hand sanitizer has one job: to kill germs. While they say plain ol’ hand washing at a sink remains the best option, a hand sanitizer can be the next best thing in a pinch as long as it contains at least 60% alcohol. While some alcohol-free hand sanitizers can also be effective, a lack of standardization among alcohol-free recipes means efficacy can fluctuate from brand to brand. Typically, hand sanitizer is packaged in hard HDPE plastic bottles which are durable on the go. HDPE plastic, or “high-density polyethylene” plastic is just regular hard plastic. The even better news? HDPE is both readily recyclable and can be made from recycled plastics.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
Most viruses and bacteria are contained within a membrane which keeps the germs safe as they spread. For hand sanitizer to be effective and keep us safe, it needs to permeate this membrane. Conventional hand sanitizer consists of alcohol, which breaks through the lipid envelope, or membrane, of some bacteria and viruses, moisturizers to protect skin from the drying effects of alcohol, polyacrylate which creates the classic jelly consistency, and water. Alcohol (considered the active ingredient in conventional hand sanitizer) is a renewable biofuel made from burning leftover raw materials such as grains and crops.
Ethanol, which is a biofuel, has a lower environmental impact than fossil fuels. The feedstocks that are used and burned to make ethanol come from agricultural waste. Using existing waste streams makes ethanol a renewable resource. Ethanol specifically is produced from biomatter which contains sugars, such as sugarcane or corn. When compared to fossil fuels, biofuels produce less greenhouse gas emissions and, of course, don’t require the use of scarce, non-renewable resources.
Some hand sanitizers contain fragrances, however, not all fragrances are created equal. Chemical additives and synthetic fragrances may contain harmful ingredients like triclosan and phthalates, which are known to have negative health consequences. Non-alcohol-based formulas are more likely to contain these ingredients and additives. Essential oils, as a natural alternative to synthetic fragrance, have been shown not only to have positive health benefits but may also increase the efficacy of hand sanitizer. Tea and lemongrass extracts specifically have been studied in relation to hand sanitizer effectiveness.
Dyes may also have negative health and environmental impacts. While most hand sanitizers are clear, and therefore in-the-clear, some may have dyes unnecessarily added to them for purely aesthetic purposes. Most commonly used dyes in personal care products are made from coal tars or petroleum. These colorants are at best considered irritants and allergens, and at worst are carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Most dyes are resistant to biodegradation, meaning they become water pollutants once they are washed off our hands and down the drain. Since dyes add no value to hand sanitizers, it’s best to avoid them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been the worst, to put it lightly. To stay safe and survive, society relied on tools to stop germ spread, hand sanitizer being an important one. As a result, large amounts of medical and pandemic-related waste have been generated. Since hand sanitizer bottles are made from recyclable plastic, we can do our part in making sure these bottles are properly recycled rather than destined for landfills.
While hand sanitizers are safe when used properly, they do pose a risk of alcohol poisoning to children if they are swallowed. At the beginning of the pandemic, over 9,000 cases of hand sanitizer exposure in children were reported to the American Association of Poison Control Center. Alcohol-free hand sanitizers eliminate risk factors related to human health risk, but may also impose risk with a reduction in efficacy, depending on what is in them. Keep your hand sanitizer out of reach of young kiddos who may want to give it a taste. Hand sanitizer, like Tide Pods, doesn’t belong in your mouth, no matter what TikTok says.
A Few Takeaways
Opt for alcohol-based, dye-free, and synthetic fragrance-free hand sanitizer formulas when possible, and be sure to recycle your bottle when you’re done!
“Is hand sanitizer safe for the environment?Most conventional hand sanitizers are alcohol-based, and alcohol is a renewable, naturally occurring resource. Sanitizers that contain active ingredients such as ethanol, isopropanol (another type of alcohol), or hydrogen peroxide can pose risks if spilled in large quantities, or disposed of improperly, especially if they are spilled into the ocean). Chemical toxicity aside, hand sanitizer packaging, typically small plastic bottles, can certainly negatively impact the environment if the plastic used is virgin and/or they end up in landfills rather than recycled.
“What is the healthiest hand sanitizer?”
While “healthy” is a broad term, if we focus on our health, and germ mitigation, the healthiest hand sanitizer is the most effective one. Both the CDC and WHO recommend alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol as the active ingredient. Sanitizers without additives are the healthiest bet.
“What ingredients are banned in hand sanitizer?”
Not all alcohol derivatives are created equally, and unfortunately, during the Great Hand Sanitizer Shortage of 2020, society became aware of this fact. Methanol is a toxic form of alcohol and should not be an ingredient in your hand sanitizer. The FDA released a list of brands that use this toxic ingredient so the public is aware of which sanitizers to avoid.