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Ask Dr. Pete: On Sensitive Skin and Over-Sanitization
A product inventor, innovator, and sustainability expert, he’s the brains behind our Bio Laundry Detergent and was a founding member of The Sustainability Consortium. Today he’s back with more helpful knowledge: everything you need to know about sanitizing, including but not limited to whether there is such a thing as too much; and answering questions you may have asked yourself recently, such as “do I have eczema or is it just winter?”
What's the deal with sanitizing? Is there such a thing as too much? If so, what can we replace it with?
Sanitizers and disinfectants are cleaning products that contain biocides - active ingredients that significantly reduce or eliminate germs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed about 500 registered disinfectant products that are capable of eliminating both bacteria and viruses including COVID-19 for specific surface cleaning applications. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has specific guidelines and listings that regulate the use of hand sanitizers.
Sanitizers and disinfectants in the marketplace are most commonly found as liquid gels, wipes, and sprays. The majority of biocides approved by the EPA and FDA include the following categories of chemicals:
- Alcohols, such as ethanol or isopropyl alcohol (IPA)
- Quaternary ammonium (“Quats”), such as benzalkonium chloride
- Chlorine-based bleaches, such as sodium hypochlorite
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Sodium percarbonate, which generates hydrogen peroxide when mixed in water
- Organic acids, such as citric acid, glycolic acid, and lactic acid
- Phenols, and phenolic derivatives such as Thymol
Depending on the application and use of each of these ingredients, many of these ingredients pose safety risks and should be used with care and only when really necessary to reduce exposure to these toxins, irritants, and/or allergens.
Due to the high demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some irresponsible hand sanitizer brands have used lower quality ethanol containing methanol, or IPA containing 1-propanol as toxic byproducts. When in contact with skin even at trace amounts, methanol and 1-propanol can cause serious side effects. When ingested, they can cause blindness or death. Before purchasing a hand sanitizer, be sure to carefully review ingredient labels to make sure that the ethanol and IPA level is at or above 60%, and make sure that the brand is credible based on reports and consumer reviews. The FDA also has a “blacklist” of hand sanitizers that contain methanol.
Be sure to always keep hand sanitizers out of reach of children and pets, and away from any heat sources.
As the FDA recently stated: “There’s no data demonstrating that these drugs (i.e., antibacterial soaps) provide additional protection from diseases and infections. Using these products might give people a false sense of security”. Instead of using sanitizers and antibacterial soaps to remove germs and viruses like COVID-19 from your hands, the FDA strongly recommends simple hand washing with plain soap and water. The biocides used in antibacterial soaps, such as triclosan and quats, have raised many safety concerns for humans and ecosystems, in addition to unknown risks from long term exposure.
Hard surface sanitizers and disinfectants
Hard surface cleaners also contain biocides as their active ingredients. While these ingredients effectively kill germs, they can also be hazardous to human health and should be used carefully. Be sure to read your ingredient labels to know the active ingredients in your cleaners, especially when using multiple cleaners at a time. Never mix a disinfectant containing quats with another using chlorine bleach as its active ingredient. The combination of these two ingredients triggers a chemical reaction that produces a toxic gas called chloramine.
When using a spray surface cleaner, direct the liquid spray as closely to the intended surface as possible to minimize aerosolization. Those biocides are irritants, allergens, and/or toxins when exposed to respiratory tracts and skin. Extra protection should be applied to more sensitive populations (such as children under 6-years old, pregnant women, and people with severe allergies) by keeping them away when these cleaning products are used, or by wearing protective masks and gloves.
Always rinse or wipe off hard surfaces after sanitization to avoid unintended cross contamination of the biocides with food sources or skin exposure. After using surface sanitizers, always wash your hands (and face as needed) using soap and water to remove any biocide residue on the skin. Carefully read and follow the instructions of each sanitizer and disinfectant. Avoid overuse and keep products out of reach of children and pets.
If ingredient safety is a concern, you may want to consider using hydrogen-peroxide based sanitizers which have a better overall safety profile than quat or chlorine based sanitizers. Surface cleaners made with organic biocides like acids or thymol are overall safer than those that use quats, chlorine beaches, and hydrogen peroxide, but they require a longer time to effectively kill the germs and require keeping the surface wet for 15-20 minutes before wiping it off.
I’ve never had eczema in my life but have just started experiencing it. Many of my friends have been seeing skin sensitivities too. My dermatologist recommended that I stop using fragranced products. Why is that?
Eczema symptoms include red, dry, or itchy skin, which can be linked to a number of different root causes, some of which are still not well known as of today. Regarding contact eczema triggered by external chemical irritants, such as some fragrances and surfactants, we think that the mechanisms can be attributed to 2 different paths:
- Allergic contact dermatitis. In this case, certain chemical compositions may trigger over activity of Langerhans Cells, which are the biosensors embedded in our skin structure. They are part of the immune system that detects and eliminates harmful invading microbes from the outside world. When Langerhans Cells try to eliminate chemical irritants by triggering allergic reactions, eczema can occur.
- Irritant contact dermatitis. Certain surfactants or solvents can remove your body’s natural protective oils and fats from the outer layers of your skin, which can lead to severe skin dryness. They may also irritate skin by denaturing skin proteins, which can cause skin redness. Once these protective layers are removed and the skin is dry or cracked, chemical irritants can penetrate the skin and trigger allergic reactions.
The EU Commission has identified 26 fragrance irritants and restricts their uses in skincare and household cleaning products. There are also a number of fragrance ingredients that are still under investigation. We agree that it's a good idea to use fragrance-free products for peace of mind. If you have sensitive skin and happen to love fragrances, we suggest trying products containing fragrances that are EU-fragrance allergen free and approved partners of the EPA Safer Choice certification program.
It is worth noting that many essential oils, despite being naturally sourced and extracted, contain EU-listed fragrance allergens at significant levels and can trigger allergic reactions that cause eczema and contact dermatitis.
In addition, cleaning products containing harsh surfactants, such as sulfate based sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), should be avoided as they can severely irritate skin.