Do Hand Sanitizer Lotions Actually Work?

Keep your hands germ-free, without making them too dry.Grace Cary/Getty Images

These newer personal care products promise to fight germs and prevent dry skin. Here’s what board-certified dermatologists think of them.

You already know that keeping your hands clean is one of the best ways to keep yourself and others around you healthy.

Plain old handwashing with soap and water is most effective at fighting germs, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes. When you’re on the go, hand sanitizer made with at least 60 percent alcohol is a good stand-in.

“Hand sanitizer remains important because it helps remove germs from your hands, so that they do not end up on your face,” explains Jeffrey Cohen, MD, board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. These products can help reduce your risk of the common cold and — in combination with vaccines — COVID-19 and the flu, Dr. Cohen adds.

But if you regularly use hand sanitizer, you know that this hygiene product comes with an unpleasant side effect: dry, cracked skin. That’s why many people follow their hand sanitizer with a moisturizer. Now, though, thanks to a host of new products in drugstores, you may be able to take this hygiene routine from two steps to one, or at least use less moisturizer after sanitizing your hands.

How Traditional Hand Sanitizers Can Irritate Skin

The alcohol in hand sanitizers can have a drying effect on the skin, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, associate professor of dermatology and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. With overuse, hand sanitizers can disrupt the skin barrier. For those with eczema and others with sensitive skin, the skin barrier is already compromised, increasing inflammation and causing or worsening symptoms including dryness, redness, flakiness, and irritation, notes the National Eczema Association. Therefore, using hand sanitizers without moisturizing the skin afterward can worsen symptoms of eczema on the hands.

Why Moisturizing Hand Sanitizers Can Be Helpful

“The latest generation of hand sanitizers are truly a hybrid between skin care and disinfectants,” Dr. Zeichner says. “They contain the same types of hydrating ingredients found in traditional hand moisturizers, to protect the skin barrier from the ingredients that are necessary to kill microorganisms that spread infections.”

“While it’s less likely you’ll develop dryness and irritation when using moisturizing hand sanitizers, I still recommend exercising caution and using traditional hand moisturizers,” he adds.

4 Tips for Choosing a Quality Moisturizing Hand Sanitizer

To pick a product that cleans and restores moisture to the skin, turn your attention to the ingredients list and follow these expert tips.

1. Eyeball the Alcohol Type and Concentration

“I always look for ethyl alcohol, which is more effective than isopropyl alcohol at killing microorganisms,” says Karan Lal, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Hillsborough, New Jersey. While sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60 and 95 percent are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or a non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer, per the CDC, sticking to a sanitizer on the lower end of the scale is better for your skin. “I would avoid very high concentrations (more than 85 percent) of alcohol because they are more drying,” Dr. Lal says. “All you need is 60 percent ethyl alcohol.”

Separately, be wary of potentially hidden methanol content in certain sanitizers. In July 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) noted on its website that some products imported from Mexico were found to be contaminated with the ingredient, which was mislabeled as ethanol. “Methanol is toxic, and its absorption can have serious health consequences including blindness and death,” Lal says. The FDA urges consumers to pay attention to the ingredients labels on such products, and to avoid using any products specifically known to contain methanol, which the agency lists on its website.

2. Consider Benzalkonium Chloride

If you have sensitive skin, consider a non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Benzalkonium chloride is one option, as it’s an antiseptic agent that has been found to deactivate COVID-19. Nonetheless, it doesn’t kill as many infectious microorganisms as alcohol, Lal says. A study published in February 2021 in The Journal of Hospital Infection found that benzalkonium chloride deactivates COVID-19 on both hands and surfaces. Researchers noted “several advantages” of using it over alcohol for hand disinfection, including that it is “less irritating to skin and nonflammable.” They also pointed out that healthcare workers may be more likely to engage in better hand hygiene practices with benzalkonium chloride hand sanitizer because it has fewer side effects than alcohol-based sanitizers.

3. Identify Products With Moisturizing Agents

In terms of inactive ingredients, Lal looks for squalene, glycerin, and coconut oil — “all of which help attract water and maintain moisture,” he says. Nazanin Saedi, MD, department co-chair of the Laser and Aesthetics Surgery Center at Dermatology Associates of Plymouth Meeting in Pennsylvania, agrees, noting that glycerin is the main ingredient she looks for in moisturizing hand sanitizers.

4. Avoid Fragrance

This tip is key for people with eczema and anyone managing sensitive skin, as fragrance can be irritating, says Dr. Saedi. It goes back to that compromised skin barrier that Zeichner mentioned earlier. “Fragrances can be irritants,” Saedi says, “and with the compromised barrier, you can be prone to exacerbating eczema.”

4 Moisturizing Hand Sanitizers That Dermatologists Recommend

1. Biossance Squalane Hand Sanitizer

Lal recommends this hand sanitizer because it boasts 70 percent ethyl alcohol, plus hydrating squalane and vegan glycerine. It’s also fragrance-free, making it a great option for those with eczema or sensitive skin.

Buy it.

2. Pipette Hand Sanitizer

Another favorite of Lal’s, this hand sanitizer from baby brand Pipette is hypoallergenic and contains 65 percent ethyl alcohol. The fragrance-free hand sanitizer also boasts sugarcane-derived squalane for hydration.

Buy it.

3. Dove Deep Moisture Hand Sanitizer

This product is made with 61 percent naturally derived ethyl alcohol, in addition to moisturizers and emollients such as glycerin, butylene glycol, dimethicone, and glycine soja (soybean) oil. Both Lal and Zeichner are fans.

Buy it.

4. Vaseline Clinical Care Hand Sanitizer Lotion

Both Saedi and Zeichner recommend this non-alcohol-based disinfectant. “This hand sanitizer uses FDA-cleared benzalkonium chloride to keep the hands disinfected, but helps keep the skin hydrated and protected with glycerin and tapioca starch, forming a breathable seal over the skin,” explains Zeichner.

Buy it.

Important Notice: This article was originally published at www.everydayhealth.com by Leah Groth where all credits are due. Medically reviewed by Ross Radusky, MD.

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