Product Profile: Hand Sanitizer

Product Profile Hand Sanitizer MADE SAFE Blog

Toxic Chemicals in Hand Sanitizer

Hand washing with soap is considered the first line of defense for hygiene, but when that option isn’t available, hand sanitizers are a big help. However, there may be many toxic chemicals in hand sanitizer that consumers should watch out for. Avoiding these chemicals is important for personal andenvironmental health.

Ingredients of Concern

Artificial DyesArtificial colors and dyes are commonly derived from petroleum and can be added to foods, cosmetics, and personal care products such as hand sanitizers. You may recognize dyes on the packaging of conventional products as one of the few words on the ingredient list you can pronounce! Examples are Blue 1, Red 40, and Yellow 5. Despite their friendly spelling, they have been linked to harmful effects including hastened dermal absorption [1] in damaged skin, allergic [2] reactions, and hyperactivity [3] when ingested. Unfortunately, big data gaps [4] remain in the literature on artificial dyes, but in applying the precautionary principle (aka: skipping out on ingredients without enough information), it may be best to avoid them when possible.

ParabensParabens are ingredients utilized to preserve products. Extending the shelf life of an item can be a good thing, but unfortunately using parabens to prevent the growth of microorganisms also carries some toxicity concerns. For example, parabens are endocrine disrupting chemicals [5] and have been associated with breast cancer [6] and reproductive harm.[7] They can be spotted on packaging by looking for the suffix “paraben” on the ingredient label (ethylparaben, isopropylparaben, etc.).

Polyethylene Glycol Compounds (PEGs) – Utilized for their thickening, softening, and penetration-enhancing properties, PEGs are found in a wide range of consumer products including hand sanitizers. PEG compounds are created by a process called ethoxylation,[8] which means that they are likely contaminated with carcinogens like ethylene oxide [9] and/or 1,4-dioxane.[10] Since these contaminants are not intentionally added ingredients, but rather by-products of the manufacturing process, they will not be labeled on the ingredient label. Compounding the contamination issue is the fact that the penetration-enhancing effect of some PEGs can allow increased absorption [11] of other potentially harmful ingredients in any product’s given formulation. The best way to avoid PEGs and their possible contaminants is to avoid products with “PEG” listed on the ingredient list, usually as “PEG” followed by a number (Ex: PEG-40). (In case you’re an ingredient geek too -- the number after “PEG” correlates with the number of moles -- a standard scientific unit of measurement -- of ethylene oxide added to the compound during the ethoxylation process.)

Undisclosed Fragrance – Companies are not required to disclose their fragrance formulations on packaging, which means that “fragrance” on packaging could potentially be a cocktail of hundreds of ingredients. Though some ingredients may be harmless, it’s best to avoid undisclosed fragrances because many common fragrance ingredients are known to cause harm, such as phthalates [12] and synthetic musks.[13] Without the ingredients listed, we can’t know what’s inside.

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Tips for Choosing a Better Hand Sanitizer

● Shop MADE SAFE® Certified products.
● Ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are deemed safer options for active ingredients. Both the World Health Organization [14] (WHO) and the CDC recommend sanitizers containing alcohol at concentrations of at least 60 percent.

● Opt for alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain simple non-active ingredients such as water,plant oils, and glycerin.

● Avoid formulations containing PEGs (Look for “PEG” on ingredient labels, typically followed by anumber. Ex: PEG-40).

● Bypass products that contain parabens, ingredients ending in -paraben (e.g., ethylparaben).

● Try to avoid products that use artificial dyes (e.g., Yellow 5).

● Don’t use products that list “fragrance” or “parfum” OR shop products vetted by a trusted third-party verification, such as MADE SAFE, that requires full ingredient disclosure.


[1] Lucová, M., Hojerová, J., Pažoureková, S., & Klimová, Z. (2013). Absorption of triphenylmethane dyes Brilliant Blue and Patent Blue through intact skin, shaven skin and lingual mucosa from daily life products. Food and chemical toxicology: an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 52, 19–27.

[2] Food Dyes A Rainbow of Risks. (2010). Center for Science in the Public Interest. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

[3] Artificial food colouring and hyperactivity symptoms in children. (2009). Prescrire international, 18(103), 215.

[4] Food Dyes A Rainbow of Risks. (2010). Center for Science in the Public Interest. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

[5] Darbre, P., & Harvey, P. (2008). Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 28(5).

[6] Parabens. (2019). Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

[7] Kawaguchi, M., Morohoshi, K., Masuda, J., Watanabe, G., Morita, M., Imai, H., Taya, K., & Himi, T. (2009). Maternal isobutyl-paraben exposure decreases the plasma corticosterone level in dams and sensitivity to estrogen in female offspring rats. The Journal of veterinary medical science, 71(8), 1027–1033.

[8] Safety Assessment of PEGs, Cocamine, and Related Ingredients as Used in Cosmetics. (2015). Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

[9] Safety Assessment of PEGs, Cocamine, and Related Ingredients as Used in Cosmetics. (2015). Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

[10] Black, R. E., Hurley, F. J., & Havery, D. C. (2001). Occurrence of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetic raw materials and finished cosmetic products. Journal of AOAC International, 84(3), 666–670.

[11] Jang, H. J., Shin, C. Y., & Kim, K. B. (2015). Safety Evaluation of Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) Compounds for Cosmetic Use. Toxicological research, 31(2), 105–136.

[12] Phthalates and DEHP. (2020). Health Care Without Harm. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

[13] Synthetic Musks - Safe Cosmetics. (2022). Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

[14] WHO-recommended handrub formulations - WHO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care. (2009). NCBI. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

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