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Do 'Natural' Hand Sanitizers Actually Work?

An expert weighs in.

As a neurotic city girl who takes the packed, germy subway everywhere and obsesses over all the microscopic nastiness lurking about on surface areas, hand sanitizers are a huge part of my life. And judging from the proliferation of products on the market, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Since so many grocery items and household cleaners have veered to the “natural” and “organic” end of the spectrum, it was only a matter of time before consumers started demanding the same options for their hand sanitizing needs. Cleansing products powered by natural essences like witch hazel, bitter orange peel extract, thyme, lavender (a popular one), and even organic alcohol are on the rise. And let’s be honest, they all sound way less harsh -- and much more delicious -- than ethyl alcohol (the active ingredient in Purell) or toxic-sounding agents like Triclosan or benzalkonium chloride (BZK).

But do these seemingly kinder, gentler natural alternatives work as well as traditional bacteria-killing hand sanitizers?

First you have to wade through some sneaky marketing. Paying attention to terminology and presentation is definitely key to making an informed decision. David Pollock, a beauty chemist and co-founder of American MD Labs, cautions that the term “anti-bacterial,” which means a product actually kills bacteria, is a designation set by the FDA. So Triclosan (which is currently under evaluation by the FDA because of safety and efficacy concerns) and alcohol fall under that umbrella, but most natural ingredients don’t. You may notice terms like “purifying” or some form of the word “sanitize” on labels instead. Pollock emphasizes that “sanitize” definitely means you’ll stay fresh, clean, and hygienic, but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily killing germs.

It’s also possible that cleansers that seem to be all-natural based on the packaging, actually contain percentages of alcohol to make the product more effective. “Witch hazel arrives to formulators as an extract and is mixed with alcohol,” Pollock explained. Plus, some products out there are primarily marketed as a moisturizer first, cleanser second—like Renouve’s Anti-Aging Hand Sanitizer and Kiehl’s Purifying Hand Treatment (which does contain some alcohol).

But when asked specifically about the effectiveness of cleansers that use thyme, lavender, and bitter orange peel to sanitize, Pollock hedged.“[The products] may have some benefits, but I am not aware of any studies other than anecdotal evidence or folklore,” he told us. “Personally, I would suggest that they make for great marketing, and, if in the right base formula, the product can deliver.”

Pollock pointed out that while the FDA oversees effective percentages of anti-bacterial agents, there isn’t a regulatory standard or body to confirm the efficacy of natural ingredients. Even the term “natural” is unregulated, so it’s an essentially meaningless word. And while some companies (CleanWell is one example) have their own studies showing evidence that their ingredients can potentially kill germs, many don't.  

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But sometimes a less harsh alternative might actually be better for certain people. “Since we launched, there have been a number of fans with eczema and even recovering cancer patients who have approached us directly to find out more about the product, as they are extremely sensitive and careful about what they apply to their skin,” explained Denis Bore of Renouve.

Your best bet is a combination product, one that both moisturizes and cleans. “They are gentler on the hands,” Pollock said. “Anti-aging/moisturizing hand products are a must. I always say, if you want to know a women’s true age—look at her hands.” (Ouch.)

So the bottom line is that natural or partially natural sanitizers don’t work as well as traditional chemical-filled products. But that doesn’t mean Purell is better per se or that 20-year industry vet Pollock would prefer a Triclosan product over, say, bitter orange peel.

“If it was me picking for myself, I prefer the natural hand cleansers with essential oils. Whether they perform the same or not isn’t the question,” Pollock said. “The question for me is do they clean my hands so I am comfortable eating or feel clean? And the answer is yes.”

Click through to see our picks for natural hand cleansers/sanitizers/purifiers to shop right now, and remember: Nothing—natural or not—is a substitute for washing your hands with plain old soap and water. Experts recommend sudsing up for the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” beginning to end twice. (Note: click on the images to see the captions in full and see below for links to buy.)

To Purchase:

Renouve Anti-Aging Hand Sanitizer, $29; Jurlique Moisturizing Hand Sanitizer, $6.50; Burt's Bees Aloe and Witch Hazel Hand Sanitizer, $4.79; Kiehl's Purifying Hand Treatment, $18; EO Cleansing Hand Wipes, $5.99; CleanWell All-Natural Hand Sanitizing Wipes, $4.99