Give your immune system a hand |

Give your immune system a hand

Dear Eartha,

We are in the heart of cold and flu season. At a recent work meeting, there was a vigorous debate over the effectiveness of hand sanitizer. Are there good alternatives to commercial hand sanitizer?

— Alex, Frisco

Some hand-sanitizer ingredients may contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, thereby creating “super bacteria.”

Alex, this is an excellent question. There is no doubt that commercial hand sanitizer sounds like a great idea when you are in a bathroom without soap, or a portable toilet or after handling a shopping cart at City Market. Although commercial hand sanitizers have been proven to kill bacteria, they also have a dark side.

For example, read the label of a commercial “anti-bacterial” hand sanitizer bottle. Do you see the ingredient tricolsan? It is added to products to prevent bacterial growth and is found in everything from toys to soaps to clothing. Even though it kills bacteria, it may contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, thereby creating “super bacteria.”

Not to scare you, but “super bacteria” is when bacteria are able to survive after exposure to one or more antibiotics. This is a serious and growing phenomenon in contemporary medicine and has emerged as one of the pre-eminent public health concerns of the 21st century.

A World Health Organization report released in April states, “this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Antibiotic resistance — when bacteria change, antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections — is now a major threat to public health.”

Be on the lookout for paraben ingredients, too. Parabens are chemicals used to prevent microbe growth and are found in many personal-care products like shampoo, body wash and soap. These nasty chemicals have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, skin irritation and more.

Keep an eye out for these four parabens that are commonly found in hand sanitizers: ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben.

What about scent? That’s got to be harmless, right? Wrong! Because fragrance is considered proprietary, companies aren’t required to disclose the ingredients that make up their secret scents. This means they could be made of any chemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group, “fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.”


We can all agree that there is a dark side to using commercial hand sanitizers. So is there an alternative? Thankfully yes! And it is easy to make at home:

5-10 drops lavender essential oil (or rosemary, sage, sandalwood or peppermint, depending on your fragrance preference)

30 drops tea tree essential oil (this is a .5 percent concentration)

1 tablespoon witch hazel extract (or high-proof vodka)

9 ounces 100 percent pure aloe vera gel

Add the essential oils and vitamin E oil to a small glass bowl or container and swirl to mix. Add witch hazel (or vodka) to the oils and swirl again. Add this mixture to the aloe vera gel and mix well.

Shake gently before each use. One batch should last several months.

There is a dark side of this natural hand sanitizer, too. Tea tree oil is toxic if swallowed by humans or animals, so keep it safely stored away from curious hands. However, it is completely safe when used topically.

Care should always be used when handling essential oils, which are concentrated, powerful plant extracts. If you’ve never used essential oils on your skin before, test for an allergic reaction. Mix one drop of essential oil with about 1 tablespoon olive oil. Rub a small portion on the inside of your elbow and cover with a Band-Aid. Wait 24 hours and see if you have a negative reaction.

On the bright side, one of the unique qualities of essential oils is that they do not cause bacterial resistance like antibacterial chemicals do and are effective in killing strains of bacteria that have become resistant to man-made chemicals. Just say “No” to super bacteria!

If this natural hand sanitizer doesn’t irritate your skin simply add it to a clean 3- or 4-ounce squirt bottle and carry it with you to use anytime you feel the need to clean your hands where soap and water aren’t available.

Sometimes it’s good to expose our bodies to germs in order to strengthen our immune systems, but sometimes enough is enough and it makes sense to help our immune system out in a different way — with clean hands.

Ask Eartha is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to

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