How Bad Is It Really to Use Disinfecting Wipes on Your Hands if You Don’t Have Sanitizer?

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Rubbing your hands with a disinfecting wipe can cause skin irritation and contact dermatitis.
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We understand the temptation to reach for one of those handy disinfecting wipes when you need to clean your hands, which, during the age of COVID-19, is pretty much all the time. After all, the wipes are convenient and they kill germs so... why not, right?

We've even heard of people using them on their faces. But while disinfecting wipes may be germ-killers, that doesn't make them good for your skin. Here's what you need to know before you swab down your skin with a wipe.

About Those Cleaning Wipes

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a list of disinfectants, including wipes, that can kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Only two of the products on that list — Lysol Disinfectant Spray and Lysol Disinfectant Max Cover Mist — were tested directly against SARS-CoV-2 and were specifically approved for COVID-19 in July 2020 by the EPA.

Other products are on the list either because they're effective against a virus that is harder to kill than SARS-CoV-2 or are effective against another human coronavirus that is similar to SARS-CoV-2, so experts assume they'll inactivate the novel coronavirus as well, per the EPA.

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But that's on surfaces. These products may or may not be able to disinfect your hands.

"Hand sanitizers work in 20 seconds. You rub it in, your hands dry, they're clean," says Beth Ann Lambert, system infection control supervisor for the Center for Quality and Patient Safety at Ochsner Health in New Orleans. "Those wipes can have contact times of up to five minutes. Unless your hands are staying wet for that period of time, they're not getting fully disinfected."

And they're not meant to be used on your hands. "The majority of surface disinfectants do say [to] wear gloves or wash hands after use," Lambert says.

They're also not intended for your face.

"We have thicker skin on our hands," says Carrie L. Kovarik, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "The face is a whole different ballgame, plus we're putting masks on and our eyes and nose and everything else can get irritated."

Even if a wipe doesn't burn your skin, it could damage your eyes, Lambert adds.

Wipes and other disinfectants are made for hard surfaces such as glass, steel and different countertops. Experts test these wipes or "towelettes" by putting some of the organism on a glass slide, then treating it with a disinfectant wipe, then putting the glass in an environment where the organism would normally be able to grow, according to the University of North Carolina.

What Are the Risks of Using Disinfecting Wipes on Your Hands?

Ultimately, that depends on the ingredients in the product and on how sensitive your skin is. But consider these potential problems.

Wipes Could Cause Skin Irritation

"It's a very heterogenous group of wipes out there, and they're made of different things," says Dr. Kovarik, who is also a member of the American Academy of Dermatology COVID-19 Task Force. "Some of them have bleach in them, some of them have ammonium chloride — which is what a lot of the Clorox and Lysol products have — and most of them have some percentage of alcohol."

Bleach is a well-known skin irritant, meaning substances that can cause damage to anyone, regardless of whether or not you have a specific allergy.

"One hundred percent do not use bleach on your skin," Lambert says.

Alcohol may be kinder, Lambert adds, but just because a product says it contains ethanol (alcohol) doesn't ensure it's safe.

You Might Also Face Contact Dermatitis

Disinfectant ingredients can also cause contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction to a certain substance. This happens more with fragrances and preservatives, Dr. Kovarik says.

Research has shown that some preservatives found in wipes, even wipes that are meant for personal or cosmetic use, like methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, can cause allergic reactions, per January 2017 research in Dermatitis. These contact allergies seem to be on the rise, according to a January 2016 study in JAMA Dermatology.

Both irritation and contact dermatitis can show up with similar symptoms.

"They'll dry out the skin, they'll create itchiness. They'll cause redness kind of like poison ivy on the hands, cracks in the skin like fissures on fingertips, even sometimes little blisters — and that just invites in more germs," Dr. Kovarik says. The same thing can happen on your face. "They're taking away your skin barrier."

Alcohol-based sanitizers can cause some of the same issues, she adds, although not as easily as wipes because they evaporate so quickly.

Be Especially Careful if You Already Have a Skin Condition

“If you have an open sore, eczema, psoriasis or sensitive skin, you could have a very bad reaction from using these wipes to clean your hands,” says Michele S. Green, MD, a dermatologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

What’s the Best Way to Clean Your Hands?

COVID-19 or no COVID-19, the best way to clean your hands is with soap under running water for about 20 seconds, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hand sanitizer (containing at least 60 percent alcohol) is a close second.

What's the difference?

When you wash your hands, you're actually getting rid of the germs, not just killing them. With hand sanitizer, you kill the germs, but they just sit on your hand, Dr. Kovarik says.

But you need to wash your hands correctly. Running water will hit more spots, like between your fingers and under your nails, she says.

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What Should You Use Wipes For?

Surfaces — and lots of them.

In the age of COVID-19, the CDC recommends cleaning frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, handles, toilets, faucets, sinks and electronics like cell phones and remote controls often. Always follow the instructions on the label which may, in fact, tell you to either remove gloves while using the product or to wash your hands right after.

Remember that cleaning is different from disinfecting, per the CDC. Cleaning lowers the risk of infection by removing dirt and germs. Disinfecting actually kills germs using chemicals.

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So, How Bad Is It Really to Use Disinfecting Wipes on Your Hands or Face?

Let's say you've had a known COVID-19 exposure and there's no soap or water or sanitizer available. In such an unlikely event, using a wipe once on your hands probably isn't going to hurt you too much, as long as you don't touch your eyes. It's unclear whether it will actually kill SARS-CoV-2.

The catch is, you still need to wash your hands as soon as possible afterward, and that includes if you're using your bare hands to wipe down a surface. "These chemicals should not be left on your skin," Dr. Green says.

Definitely don't use the wipes routinely on your hands or face. And keep them away from kids; their skin is even more delicate and sensitive.

"I could see worried parents possibly wiping the hands or even the face of their kids, and that's just [likely] to create a crazy rash," Dr. Kovarik says.

Needless to say, don't put any wipes into your mouth either, per the National Capital Poison Center.

"Just like with everything else, you've got to follow the instructions on the label," Lambert says.

Concerned About COVID-19?

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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