Are Hand Sanitizers Really Bad For Immunity?

01/05/2012

Hand sanitizers photoIt’s the season of hand sanitizers. Local establishments frequented by parents are peppered with moms and dads chasing their children around with mini bottles of the clear goo. It’s a must have tool for fending off the common cold and a host of other seasonal ailments. Or is it? What’s the truth about hand sanitizers? Are they effective and are they safe?

Hand Sanitizer Effectiveness

Hand sanitizers claim to be 99.9 percent effective at removing germs but studies have shown that this isn’t necessarily the case, according to About.com. When tests are done to check for the removal of germs, they aren’t done on hands because hands are too complex. Studies are instead done on inanimate objects, which offer unrealistic results. Barbara Almanza, an associate professor at Purdue University has studied the topic extensively and she found that hand sanitizers may actually increase the amount of bacteria on the hand rather than decrease it. 

“Waterless” products such as hand sanitizers are less effective at bacterial removal than their than regular soap and water and antibacterial products and soaps may actually be harmful. This is especially true for young children who don’t yet have fully developed immune systems.

Hand Sanitizers Decrease Immunity

Northwestern researchers studied infectious disease in Filipino children, a population with a high level of infectious diseases in early childhood compared to Western countries. Researchers followed the children for 22 years, starting in utero, according to Science Daily.

Researchers specifically tested for C-reactive protein (CRP) production. “Levels of the protein rise in the blood due to inflammation, an integral part of the immune system's fight against infection." 

"Contrary to assumptions related to earlier studies, our research suggests that ultra-clean, ultra-hygienic environments early in life may contribute to higher levels of inflammation as an adult, which in turn increases risks for a wide range of diseases," said Thomas McDade, lead author of the study, associate professor of anthropology in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

Child with cold photo

Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images

The Dangers of Triclosan

Hand sanitizing has become all the rage but it’s not necessarily a good thing. Triclosan, widely used as an antibacterial ingredient in household hand sterilization products, breaks down rapidly when exposed to chlorinated water and produces toxic chemicals, including chloroform. According to a study published on the Environmental Science & Technology research website As Soon As Publishable (ASAP), many antibacterial products may not only be ineffective, but harmful.

This research shows that traditional soap and water is more effective at bacterial removal than both waterless agents and antibacterial soap. Just because the label reads 99.9 percent effective doesn’t mean it’s true. Our body's immunity is the single most important tool for fighting bacteria and viruses that attack our vessel. Arm yourself by eating a healthy diet, reducing stress through yoga and meditation, and getting enough sleep this cold season. 

Photo: Digital Vision/Getty Images

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More on Immunity
How Your Immune System Works
What is herd immunity? 
Health Issues with Dr. Oz: The Immune System 


Sara Novak writes about health and wellness for Discovery Health. Her work is also regularly featured in Breathe Magazine and on SereneKitchen.com. She has written extensively on food policy, food politics, and food safety.


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