Hand sanitizers are popular alternatives to antibacterial soap for busy parents. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has expressed concern that these chemicals may increase bacterial resistance to infection when overused. They also pose poisoning risks to babies who place everything in their mouth. When used properly, antibacterial hand sanitizers can be an excellent supplement to basic hygiene, but parents should exercise caution and avoid overuse.
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Bacteria develop resistance to antibacterial agents via resistance. Because bacteria reproduce very quickly, beneficial mutations quickly spread. When people constantly use hand sanitizers, the bacteria their bodies encounter daily have many opportunities to develop mutations that resist being killed. This increases the likelihood of the bacteria becoming stronger, more difficult to kill and dangerous to people.
Weakened Immune Systems
A baby is born with an immune system that adapts to its surroundings. Babies develop immunity from drinking their mother's breast milk and from being exposed to environmental pathogens. Memory T cells are white blood cells that "remember" pathogens the body has encountered and develop the body's immunity. When a baby is not exposed to any pathogens, her body is unable to develop memory T cells to fight infection. Although it is dangerous for children to be exposed to life-threatening infections, the viruses and bacteria a baby encounters in her daily life may actually help her develop immunity to deadly illness.
Hand sanitizers contain alcohol and other chemicals that might harm babies. Because babies put most things in their mouth, it's risky to use hand sanitizer on toys and other items babies play with. If a baby frequently places a sanitizer-covered toy in her mouth, she may develop stomach problems. In extreme cases, hand sanitizer can poison babies.
The CDC cautions that overuse of hand sanitizers is linked to allergies. An allergy is a misguided immune reaction to a harmless substance. When children are protected from all substances that tax the immune system, the immune system may begin reacting to all substances as if they pose a danger.
Hand Sanitizer Precautions
Parents should avoid overuse of hand sanitizers. It's unnecessary to apply hand sanitizer every time your baby touches a new surface, and toys do not need to be washed daily. Hand sanitizer works well when parents use it to prevent infection, such as when a child visits a sick relative. Never apply hand sanitizer to children's hands or toys. There is also no need to use hand sanitizer when your child touches dirt or the floor.
- Centers for Disease Control; Antibacterial Household Products: Cause for Concern; Stuart B. Levy
- "Child Psychology: Development in a Changing Society"; Robin Harwood, et al.; 2008
- "Health, Safety and Nutrition for the Young Child"; Lynn R. Marotz; 2011