You rely on hand sanitizer to protect you from getting sick, but your skin might be taking a hit. Here's how to deal and still stay safe.

By Mona Gohara, M.D. and Erin Reimel
Updated December 29, 2020
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Applying hand sanitizer after touching a greasy menu or using a public restroom has long been the norm, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone began to practically bathe in it. The problem: "Our important but increased reliance on alkaline sanitizing formulas may be leading to several skin conditions, like eczema, as well as dryness and itchiness,” says dermatologist Sarina Elmariah, M.D., Ph.D.

You probably went from occasionally soaping up to applying hand sanitizer throughout the day, along with wiping down your home, your belongings, and your kids — and then touching your face. Yes, you need to kill potentially lurking viruses, but the side effect is that you’re also wiping out a lot of good germs, including normal bacteria you need to keep your skin strong, says Dr. Elmariah. “Your skin is the physical barrier that protects your body from assault,” says dermatologist Morgan Rabach, M.D. It needs a healthy microbiome of good bacteria to do its job.

Using hand sanitizer
Credit: Marko Geber/Getty

The high alcohol level and pH in many sanitizing formulas aren’t great for skin either. Alcohol can dry out keratinocytes, or barrier cells, making skin more susceptible to infection, inflammation, allergic reactions, redness, swelling, and even pain, says Dr. Elmariah. (See: What to Know About Your Skin Barrier)

What's more, there is such a thing as being too clean. A Northwestern University study found that immunity — in this case of this research, children's — can be affected by the use of hand sanitizers. The same goes for lots of hand washing with antibacterial soap (which BTW, might also be messing with your hormones). The authors found that more kids were getting preventable diseases after long-term use of hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial soap. The researchers surmised that ultra-clean environments could lower immunity so much that it weakens the body's defense mechanisms. The moral of the story: Some dirt is good for you. (Who knew there was a sneaky downside to washing your hands?)

So should you stop your sanitizing habit altogether? Not exactly. Here's what you need to know about washing your hands and applying hand sanitizer, plus how to make them less damaging to your skin.

Nothing replaces regular hand washing.

Before the days of manufactured alcohol-based concoctions, cleansing was the best defense against unwanted germs. Surgeons have scrub rooms, where they meticulously preen their hands before starting a procedure — because a few squirts of hand sanitizer isn't going to take care of it. So if it's an option, choose the sink. (Related: How to Correctly Wash Your Hands — Because You're Doing It Wrong)

When you wash: “Use lukewarm water, which won’t dry your skin as much as hot water,” says Dr. Elmariah. Then hydrate while your skin is still damp to help retain moisture. For the hands, thicker creams or lotions are a great option. For the face, go for a noncomedogenic, oil-free lotion. “This keeps the skin’s top layer nice and supple without spurring breakouts,” she says. Try EltaMD Skin Recovery Light Moisturizer (Buy It, $39, dermstore.com), which contains amino acids, antioxidants, and squalane to help prevent moisture loss.

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But if you're going to use hand sanitizer...

Make sure to check the alcohol content. The label may say that it kills germs, but unless the alcohol content is 60 percent or above, it won't work. You would be surprised how many products (especially those that have a more pleasing fragrance) don't meet that requirement. (BTW, here's what you need to know about hand sanitizer and the coronavirus.)

As a less-damaging alternative, dermatologist Orit Markowitz, M.D., recommends sanitizing with an alcohol-free formula that contains hypochlorous acid. “This combination of water, chloride, and a tiny bit of vinegar is strong enough to kill viruses but is much less damaging to the skin barrier and less disruptive for the microbiome,” she says. Try Clean Republic Medical Strength Non-Toxic Hand Cleanser (Buy It, $4, clean-republic.com).

If you get a cut, avoid putting hand sanitizer on it, because... ouch! Also, avoid over-the-counter antibiotic creams, as they are some of the most common causes of allergic reactions in the skin. Compromised skin responds best to gentle cleansers and petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) to promote wound healing. And although you may think that sanitizer is the answer to food residue or anything invisible lurking that can soil your hands, but it's not the case. Things like fats and sugar deposits don't vanish from your hands because you added sanitizer. You need suds and water to wash them away.

TL;DR: It's A-OK to use hand sanitizer when needed, just know that it's not the end-all be-all solution to keeping your palms sparkling clean — and lotion will always be your friend.