Overcoming Skin Reactions from Hand Sanitizers

Skin irritations and allergies can result from hand hygiene protocols and the overuse of hand sanitizers. This article identifies some common causes of skin damage and provides safer, longer-lasting alternatives for people of all ages.

During cold and flu season, especially as a new virus strain makes news headlines as it affects the globe, maintaining proper hand hygiene protocols and making safe sanitizing a healthy habit is as important as ever.

Washing hands with soap and warm water is the most effective method for reducing the load of harmful germs found on the fingers and hands. Using soap along with the 20-second minimum mechanical action of handwashing remove harmful germs and the debris that can trap germs is recommended. Additionally, scrubbing fingernails beneath nail beds is essential. Running water is also critical to the process; standing water sources can facilitate germ proliferation and cross-contamination.

When running water and soap are not readily available, hand sanitizers are another method to protect the body from harmful germs. But did you know? Traditional hand sanitizers do not remove dirt or debris, and some brands are even known to be dangerous.

A recent governmental warning found benzene, acetaldehyde, and other acetal contaminants in a specific brand of popular hand sanitizer. Discontinuing use and disposal in a “hazardous waste container” versus simply pouring it down a drain is the recommended disposal method of sanitizers like this, however, that’s quite inconvenient.

The good news is that safer approaches to handwashing and hand sanitizing are proven to reduce transmission of harmful germs as well as the possibility of cross-contamination.

If a product triggers a skin irritation or allergy, it can sometimes show weeks after frequent use. Damaged skin has emerged as a very common symptom due to the excessive use of soap, water, and chemicals found in some hand sanitizers – a common problem seen in recent years, particularly during the pandemic.

Speaking of “pandemic,” some careers can mandate frequent hand washing and enhanced hygiene protocols that ultimately trigger skin irritations (think healthcare workers who reportedly wash their hands or use hand sanitizer up to 30 times per day). Other professions may see workers with consistently-damaged hands, particularly in “wet” environments (hairdressers, chefs and those working in food preparation, etc.).

What Causes Dry Skin?

  • Weather – dry, cold weather, and other environmental factors
  • Frequency – overuse of water and soaps that may contain abrasives
  • Chemicals – harsh soaps, moisturizers, cosmetics, and sanitizers
  • Temperature – consistent hot water use is damaging to skin
    In cold climates, skin irritation and dryness occur more frequently during the winter months of cold and flu season. Regardless of the time of year, the use of excessive hand hygiene protocols may result in: Redness, Flaking, Blisters, Cracking, Pain, Itching, Skin thickening, Scaling, Erosion, Oozing, Bleeding.

These symptoms appear more often on the back of hands and between the fingers than on the palms, although peeling palm skin is also a reported condition.

Additional factors that can cause skin irritation include the condition of water (mineral content, pH), ingredients in soap, and pH in general. Disrupting the skin’s natural defense mechanism on the upper layer allows harmful germs and allergens to penetrate beneath the skin’s surface and may result in an autoimmune or allergic reaction. Persistent irritation occurs in severe cases.

Preventing Dry Skin and Other Irritations

Preventing dry skin may include increased water intake, using moisturizers, eliminating harsh ingredients, increasing fats and oils in the diet, avoiding hot water use, and taking antihistamines for allergic reactions. It’s important to remember that dry skin is not an allergic reaction; it’s simply dehydration of the skin.

An allergic reaction occurs after the body signals an immune response and attempts to eliminate the disruption naturally. Hand dermatitis is a condition of the skin causing redness, swelling, soreness, and at times, the formation of small blisters or hives, resulting from direct irritation of the skin by an external agent or an allergic reaction to it.

The body can produce allergy symptoms from dust, pollen, fragrances, pet dander – even personal protection equipment (PPE). Common allergic reactions appearing on the hands can be from the use of chemicals in detergents and soaps, irritants originating from foods, prolonged exposure to water, topical product ingredients, and more.

Severe dermatitis symptoms include eczema, cracked and scaly skin, or blisters with oozing and crusting. If skin irritation on the hands is chronic, prescribed corticosteroids followed by prevention tactics can avoid future flare-ups.

Handwashing Tips: 

  • Use tepid running water (not hot)
  • Choose mild, unscented soap
  • Immediately apply moisturizer after hand washing
  • Pat hands dry or air dry
  • Use vinyl gloves (instead of rubber or latex)

Considering that excessive handwashing can damage the skin, the question arises: “Are hand sanitizers better than soap and water for dry skin?”

Hand Sanitizers & Skin Sensitivity

Choosing a trusted brand of hand sanitizer is vital to maintaining good hygiene in the absence of soap and lukewarm running water. Although the following components in some brands of hand sanitizers may be considered harmless to some, to others, skin sensitivity and allergies can be triggered by them:

  • Antiseptics – alcohol-based hand sanitizer (ethanol, isopropyl)
  • Sporicides – agents that kill germ spores (hydrogen peroxide)
  • Thickening agents – chemicals that create gels
  • Emollients – moisturizers (petrolatum, cetyl alcohol
  • Foaming agents – compounds for mimicking the consistency of soap and water
  • Fragrance – perfumes that mask the scent of chemicals
  • Natural oils – plant-based, scented antiseptic alternatives (ex. tea tree oil, lavender, lemon oil, clove, oregano, cinnamon, thyme)

Overcoming Skin Reactions from Hand Sanitizers

To avoid known triggers of skin sensitivities, a “less is more” approach to ingredients in a hand sanitizer is wise. The more components in a product, the more potential for skin irritation emerges. Known risks associated with traditional hand sanitizers include:

  • Alcohol – Astringents in skincare products range from alcohol to cider vinegar and witch hazel. Applying astringents dry the skin, and if undiluted – as is the case with alcohol in hand sanitizers – excessive drying, cracking, and peeling of the skin occurs, stripping away the body’s natural defense mechanism. Also, alcohol is flammable with a flashpoint of 63 degrees Fahrenheit. Bulk storage of more than 5 gallons of alcohol-based hand sanitizer requires specific storage conditions to meet fire codes.
  • UV – Damaging the upper layer of skin with excessive handwashing and alcohol-based hand sanitizer also destroys its natural defenses, making it more sensitive to UV light. UV light penetrates deep into the skin, beneath the upper layer, resulting in a sunburn. UV-C light eliminates harmful germs and is often used to sanitize hospitals and public transportation (subway cars, etc.) or to circulate purified air through HVAC systems in buildings. Skin and eye exposure to UV-C light create significant irritation.
  • Triclosan – In 2016, the U.S. government announced a lack of evidence to prove that triclosan, a toxic chemical linked to hormone disruption in people, was safe or effective in skincare products. As a result, the FDA banned it and other antimicrobial substances in household soap products. A premarket review is now a requirement in over-the-counter antiseptic products for healthcare. Triclosan can affect asthma, fertility, and fetal development, among other things.
  • Resistance and Dependence – Health professionals discourage the widespread use of antibiotics for infections, as the body can develop resistance and decrease its ability to defend itself naturally. Also, overuse of alcohol-based hand sanitizer can create addiction, as it absorbs into the bloodstream through the skin. Children’s body systems do not process alcohol like adults – and a one-ounce travel-sized bottle of alcohol-based sanitizer can contain the alcohol equivalent of 2-3 shots of hard liquor.
  • Phthalates and Parabens: Scented hand sanitizer often includes these additives. Chemicals like these may mask certain odors, but they can also disrupt the endocrine system and affect hormones, including those associated with reproductive development, fertility, and more.

For the safety of the hands, skin, or both, it is essential to read product labels thoroughly to ensure that a hand & body sanitizer contains ingredients that do not create an adverse reaction with frequent use.

Thankfully, non-damaging hand sanitizers and skin repair products designed for prolonged use do exist and are readily available.

Non-Damaging Hand Sanitizers & Skin Repair

The formulators at GlanHealth™ have designed a complete line of long-lasting personal sanitizers for frequent use by people of all ages. GlanHealth™ advanced hand and body sanitizers are:

  • Water-based
  • Alcohol-free
  • Non-stinging
  • Non-irritating
  • Non-flammable
  • Non-corrosive
  • Non-hazardous

Safe and reliable, GlanHealth™ products keep germs at bay with 99.9% effectiveness against common and harmful germs and bacteria.

In as little as 15 seconds, a single pump of GlanHealth™ advanced hand sanitizer forms a microscopic, nano antimicrobial barrier, protecting the skin and wounds – for up to 4-hours per application – and it leaves hands feeling clean, refreshed, and soothed with aloe vera.

To aid the repair of damaged skin from excessive hand hygiene protocols, GlanHealth’s Antimicrobial Wound & Skin Therapy promotes healing in cuts, burns, sores, abrasions, and other skin irritations.

GlanHealth’s lint-free, individually-wrapped Sanitizing Bath Wipes are a convenient on-the-go bathing solution ideal for active lifestyles as well as simple body and surgical site sanitization.

Perfect for school-aged children and young adults, GlanHealth™ alcohol-free, individually-wrapped sanitizing hand wipes are sting-free and protect skin for hours, compared to 20 seconds like most alcohol-based hand sanitizers.