What Are The Ingredients In Hand Sanitizer?

MOXĒ Eucalyptus and Mint alcohol-based hand sanitizer used for killing viruses and bacteria like the coronavirus

Six months and counting into the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. and certain lifestyle changes we've all adopted have come to be second nature. "Wallet, phone, facemask" is the new leaving-the-house mantra, and a bottle of hand sanitizer is a must-have anywhere we go

While these items were pretty scarce the first few months after coronavirus hit the States, things like hand sanitizer are becoming more available and it begs the question, "what ingredients should and shouldn't be in my hand sanitizer?" 

This post discusses the best (and worst) ingredients to have in your sanitizer to ensure safety and efficacy

Types Of Hand Sanitizers

Now that we have more options available to us again, we can afford to be a little more discerning in terms of the type of hand sanitizers we buy. 

Summarily, there are two main classes of common hand sanitizers--alcohol-based and alcohol-free. As the CDC, WHO, and FDA all agree that alcohol-based sanitizers are most effective, we'll stick to dissecting the ingredients in this type.

For more information on why alcohol sanitizers are considered the better choice, read here

Alcohol In Hand Sanitizers

There are two types of alcohols approved by the FDA for use in hand sanitizers and these are ethanol (or ethyl alcohol) and isopropanol (or isopropyl alcohol). A minimum of 60% alcohol by volume is the FDA's recommendation for hand sanitizers

Most often you'll find a combination of the two in your hand sanitizer, but sometimes just one or the other is present. They have quite similar structures, and can both effectively kill bacteria when used correctly by breaking down the proteins and disrupting bacterial structure. So what's the difference?

Isopropyl

Isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, is synthesized instead of distilled from grains or other plants. This type of alcohol is commonly used for sanitization. It is highly toxic when ingested and is not a type of alcohol you can drink. 

structure of isopropyl alcohol used in hand sanitizers

Ethanol

Ethanol, also known as grain alcohol, however, is what you'll find in distilled liquors like whiskey and tequila. This alcohol is drinkable (to an extent, since we all know excessive amounts of tequila is never a good idea) and also considered a good antiseptic. 

It's incredibly important to note that while ethanol in liquors is made for drinking, ethanol used in hand sanitizers is required by law to be denatured. This means chemicals are added to make it unpleasant for drinking and will absolutely make you very sick if you ingest it. 

structure of ethanol used in hand sanitizers

Other Common Hand Sanitizer Ingredients

So, now that we know we should look for hand sanitizers with at least 60-70% isopropyl and/or ethyl alcohol, what else should you make sure is present on your sanitizer's ingredient list? 

Thickeners

Most sanitizers come in the form of a gel rub. Unless the sanitizer is a liquid spray or foam, a thickening agent is often added to create a gel. These can be listed as "carbomers" or "crosspolymers" in the ingredient list and are simply used to turn liquid mixtures (like alcohol and water) into a gel for easy application and spreadability.

They generally come in the form of a white powder and often make up less than 1% of sanitizer composition. Carbomers are non-toxic, have not been shown to have a negative impact on the environment, and considered safe for all skin types. You'll find them in a wide array of cosmetic products as inactive ingredients. 

pH Adjusters

With the use of a carbomer, sometimes a pH adjuster is also necessary to achieve the desired thickness of your gel. These compounds are used to control the acidity or alkalinity of topicals to achieve the proper consistency. Too acidic and your gel may be too liquid-y and too high a pH (or too alkaline) and the gel may be too thick to easily pour or pump from a bottle. 

Common pH adjusters include triethanolamine and aminomethyl propanol. These ingredients may sound scary, but they're non-toxic, FDA -approved, and used at very low percentages in hand sanitizers (usually between 0.3-0.5%). 

aloe vera plant from which aloe vera leaf juice is extracted for use as a moisturizing agent in hand sanitizer

Moisturizing Agents

Since alcohols are known to be quite drying (rubbing alcohol in particular), a common addition to good sanitizers is one or more humectants, or moisturizing agents to combat the drying effects of alcohol. These can include things like vegetable glycerin, vitamin E (often written as tocopherol acetate), and aloe leaf juice. For a premium sanitizer pick, make sure one or more of these ingredients is included. 

Fragrance

While it's not a necessity for an effective hand sanitizer, a pleasant fragrance can be a point for the pro column if you prefer scented products.

Premium sanitizers are often scented with things like essential oils or natural fragrance oils. Just make sure to avoid synthetic fragrances as these are often skin irritants for many. 

MOXĒ's scented sanitizers use only essential oils and non-synthetic fragrance oils. 

 fruits used to make essential oils and natural fragrance oils

Hand Sanitizer Ingredients To Avoid

Here are a few ingredients you should probably steer clear of while shopping for a sanitizer:

  1. Benzalkonium Chloride. This is the main active ingredient in "alcohol-free" sanitizers. As we mentioned, you want to pick an alcohol-based sanitizer for greatest efficacy so if you see this on an ingredient label, keep it moving!
  2. Methanol. Also known as wood alcohol, methanol is not an approved alcohol for skin application as it is highly toxic. You won't find this ingredient listed on a label, but recently many hand sanitizers have been recalled after having been found to contain methanol. As little as 10 mL of methanol can be fatal, and even less can cause permanent blindness and nervous system damage. Find the FDA's full list of recalled products here
  3. Synthetic Fragrances. These fragrances often contain phthalates and other ingredients that may be irritating to the skin. 

The Take-Away

Ingredient lists should always be examined for anything you put in your body or on your skin, and hand sanitizer is no exception. Make sure your sanitizer is safe and effective by buying products with a minimum 60-70% alcohol concentration, plenty of added moisturizers, and none of the avoidable toxins or irritants. 

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