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Hand sanitizer has become more popular than ever, in large part due to its effectiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Portable hand sanitizer products kill germs on your hands and other surfaces on contact, helping to slow the spread of transmissible diseases like COVID-19.

Hand sanitizer has proven itself useful in killing germs, but using it can have side effects. Overuse of hand sanitizer can lead to dry, cracked skin as well as redness or discoloration, and flaking. It can also pose a risk if it’s ingested or gets into your eyes.

Let’s cover everything you need to know about using hand sanitizer safely.

The side effects of your hand sanitizer will come down to the formulas you’re using. Hand sanitizer typically contains a high amount of alcohol (between 60 and 95 percent) meant to kill germs on your hands. Even if the alcohol content is low, your hand sanitizer may also contain other antiseptic ingredients that have been known to cause side effects.

Dries out your skin

Alcohol is an effective antiseptic, meaning that it’s proven to kill bacteria and viruses on organic surfaces. But alcohol is also known to have a drying effect on your skin.

When you’re applying hand sanitizer to your hands multiple times each day, the product is taking moisture out of your skin. This can result in skin that’s dry, flaky, and sensitive to the touch. In addition to being uncomfortable, the American Academy of Dermatology Association says that having dry skin can actually increase your chances of picking up germs.

Can trigger an eczema breakout

You may notice that after hand sanitizer dries on your hands, itchy and red or discolored eczema patches tend to appear. That’s because if you have eczema, the chemicals can actually make your symptoms worse. Whether you use a foam, liquid, or a gel-based hand sanitizer, you may see increased eczema symptoms after use.

Can impact your hormones

Hand sanitizer sometimes contains an ingredient called triclosan. According to the FDA, Triclosan is intended to kill bacteria, and has been used in products from toothpaste to body wash. The FDA also says some studies have indicated that high exposure to triclosan may disrupt natural hormone cycles and even impact fertility. More research is needed to fully understand triclosan’s impact on people, but the ingredient has already been banned from several types of products.

May contribute to antibiotic resistance

The FDA says that triclosan is intended to kill bacteria, but overuse of this ingredient in consumer products may be contributing to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A 2015 research review of how triclosan is contributing to antibiotic resistance concluded that more research is necessary to determine how this chemical is actually impacting human health.

There are risks for using hand sanitizer, especially if you use it in ways other than instructed on the package instructions. These risks can typically be avoided by sticking to external use of hand sanitizer and avoiding contact with your eyes.

Can be harmful if swallowed

The high amounts of alcohol and other ingredients make hand sanitizer unsafe for human consumption. Texas Medical Center says that anyone who swallows a significant quantity of hand sanitizer can get sick with symptoms that resemble alcohol poisoning.

Medical emergency

Hand sanitizer is meant for external use only. If you or someone you know has ingested it, call the Poison Control Hotline at 800-222-1222.

Can cause blindness or damage vision if it gets into your eyes

It’s easy enough to apply hand sanitizer and accidentally touch your eye shortly afterward. But the high levels of alcohol in hand sanitizer can actually cause chemical burns on the outer layer of your eye. Typically, damage caused by hand sanitizer to your eyes will completely heal, but you may experience the following symptoms while it heals:

  • temporarily blurry vision
  • pain
  • redness

There’s a reason that doctors recommend washing your hands with soap and water over using hand sanitizer. It’s because it’s very simple to accidentally overdo it with hand sanitizer and cause dry skin and other side effects.

In fact, if you use hand sanitizer so much that your hands get dried out, it may be easier for your hands to pick up germs from other surfaces.

Additionally, your skin may start to crack or bleed. Skin that’s dried out and cracked may also be more susceptible to bacteria.

Read ingredient labels before you buy hand sanitizer and limit how much you use it to the product label’s recommendations. For best results:

  • Always supervise children when they use hand sanitizer.
  • After use, wait until your hands are completely dry before touching your eyes or your face.
  • Keep hand sanitizer in a cool, dry place to prevent alcohol evaporation.
  • Don’t overdo it. A pump or two from a hand sanitizer dispenser should be enough for your hands.
  • Stick to external use only. Never ingest or taste hand sanitizer.

When used properly, hand sanitizer does have benefits, including:

  • quickly kills most types of bacteria on most surfaces
  • requires less time to be effective than washing your hands
  • is more convenient than soap and water when you don’t have access to a sink

To use hand sanitizer correctly, you should only use it when your hands are free from visible dirt. Use only a dime-sized amount (or less) and rub your hands together until the hand sanitizer has completely absorbed. For best results (and healthy skin), apply a moisturizer as soon as possible after the hand sanitizer has dried. This will help prevent some of the less than desirable side effects.

When hand sanitizer is used correctly, side effects and risks are minimal. When you overuse the product, it can cause dry hands and cracked skin. Some ingredients in hand sanitizer, such as triclosan, may cause health complications if you are exposed to them in large amounts. Always read ingredient labels before you buy and only use hand sanitizer according to the guidance on the product label.