How to Avoid Germs When You Can't Wash Hands

| by Environmental Working Group

Question: How do I avoid germs when I can't wash my hands in a sink with running water?

The absolute best way to fight germs and prevent infection is good old-fashioned hand washing. But when you can't scrub up, you can turn to waterless hand sanitizers, those convenient little bottles for on-the-go.

But there are risks involved with some of these products (not to mention the disposable plastic containers): many expose you to potentially harmful chemicals and may compromise your long-term immunity. So read the labels - not all sanitizers are created equal.

Avoid hand sanitizers with triclosan.

Most conventional antibacterial wipes, gels, and soaps contain triclosan, an anti-bacterial agent added to myriad consumer products. Triclosan is nearly ubiquitous in liquid hand soap. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a pesticide, and it is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity. Even very low concentrations may disrupt thyroid function. EWG lists triclosan among the top 7 chemicals for children to avoid.

The American Medical Association discourages the use of antibacterial products in the home because they may encourage the development of superbugs -- antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As well, the overuse of antibacterial products may weaken people's immune systems. A recent study on immune dysfunction found that teenagers exposed to high levels of triclosan are more likely to suffer from hayfever or allergies.

Other chemicals to avoid in hand sanitizers:

  • Fragrance. Manufacturers are not required to list the chemicals in synthetic scents. They often hide several toxic chemicals.
  • "Quat chemicals," including benzalkonium chloride and alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride. The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics considers these chemicals to be "asthmagens," or substances that can cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy people.

Choose safe, effective alternatives.

The safest option for waterless hand-cleaning are alcohol-based sanitizers, because they don't contain triclosan but still properly disinfect.

To remove grime, dust and dirt from hands, try using a non-toxic baby wipe. They tend to lather up and lubricate enough to loosen dirt and can be found in portable sizes. But read the labels! Some baby wipes also contain "quat" chemicals.

Once you get to a sink, be sure to lather, rinse and repeat - the old-fashioned way.

Learn (a whole lot) more with EWG's Healthy Home Tip on handwashing - and use our Cosmetics Database to find hand sanitizers without triclosan or fragrance.