The concept of antibacterial hand gels, or hand sanitizers, was postulated by Lupe Hernandez, RN in 1966 when she discovered alcohol could be delivered via gel. But it wasn't until the late '90s that hand gels hit the commercial market. Once the CDC declared alcohol-based gels to be suitable for killing flu- and virus-causing germs when you can't get to soap and water, hand gels jumped into the possession of countless moms, schoolteachers and anyone else concerned about germs.
Alcohol-Based Antibacterial Gels
Antibacterial hand gels come in one of two forms: alcohol based and alcohol free. Alcohol-based gels are the only types of hand gels used in healthcare facilities and the only ones recommended by the CDC. Isopropyl and ethyl alcohol are the two most common ingredients found in alcohol-based sanitizers. At 60-percent to 80-percent purity, ethyl alcohol can kill viruses that cause tuberculosis and the flu. Isopropyl and ethyl alcohol together have also been proven effective against the viruses causing hepatitis B, herpes and HIV.
Alcohol-Free Antibacterial Gels
Benzalkonium chloride and triclosan are commonly found in alcohol-free antibacterial gels, which became popular alternatives to the alcohol-based gels and their drying effects. Benzalkonium chloride is a chemical antiseptic used to prevent infections caused by minor cuts. Triclosan is an antibacterial agent and fungicide. With proper use, both ingredients are effective at killing the viruses that cause staphylococcus aureus, as well as fungi, yeasts and protozoa.
Inactive Ingredients in Antibacterial Gels
Water is a key inactive ingredient in antibacterial gels, as is propylene glycol, which is used to absorb excess water while maintaining moisture. Alcohol-based gels may include polyacrylic as a thickening agent. To counter the drying effects of alcohol, some manufacturers use humectants such as glycerin and aloe vera, and essential oils such as tea tree oil and mandarin oil. Some gels may contain "fragrance," which is typically a catchall term for any combination of chemicals used to create a scent. Additional inactive ingredients may include carbomer, aminomethyl propanol, isopropyl myristate, or tocopheryl acetate.
Controversy Surrounding Alcohol-Free Gels
In December 2013, the FDA proposed a ruling to require manufacturers of non-alcohol-based antibacterial products to prove how much more efficient these cleansers are than regular soap; they must also prove their products are safe for long-term use, as some of the active ingredients have long been considered health risks. Triclosan, in particular, came under scrutiny in 1978 for multiple health concerns, including endocrine disruption, but the chemical was never removed from commercial use. There has also been concern that both triclosan and benzalkonium chloride may make pathogenic bacteria more resistant to antibiotics.
- FDA.gov News Release: FDA Issues Proposed Rule To Determine Safety And Effectiveness Of Antibacterial Soaps
- CNN.com: FDA Examining Antibacterial Soaps, Body Washes
- Santa Clara Basin Watershed Management Initiative: Environmental Emergence of Triclosan
- The Journal of Biological Chemistry: Mechanism of Triclosan Inhibition of Bacterial Fatty Acid Synthesis
- Infection Control Today: Choosing an Alcohol Sanitizer
- Daily Med: Instant Hand Sanitizer
- Human Touch of Chemistry: How Hand Sanitizers Made their Debut