No, Using Hand Sanitizer All The Time Won't Destroy Your Immune System

  • There are theories that have circulated amid the novel coronavirus pandemic that using hand sanitizer too often can disrupt your immune system.
  • There is no scientific evidence to support that using hand sanitizer is bad for immunity or leaves you more susceptible to infection from bacteria or viruses.
  • The CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water aren’t available.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone and their mother is doing everything they can to keep their distance from others, avoid touching their face, and maintain squeaky-clean hands.

For many, that involves applying gobs upon gobs of hand sanitizer. But can too much of a good thing turn into a potentially unhealthy thing?

There are various theories speculating that OD’ing on hand sanitizer could lead to everything from the creation of viruses or pathogens that can’t be killed by sanitizer or antibiotics to the idea that by using hand sanitizer all the time you’re reducing your body’s own ability to fight disease.

But there is no evidence to support those claims.

So to separate some hand sanitizer fact versus fiction, here’s everything you need to know about whether or not hand sanitizer could have negative effects on your health and immunity if you use it too often, with the help of Anne Liu, MD, an infectious disease doctor and allergist/immunologist at Stanford Medicine.

Tell me: Is using hand sanitizer a lot bad for my immunity?

Dr. Liu says there’s no such thing as washing your hands or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer too often during this pandemic. “There’s no scientific basis to think that hand sanitizers or soaps should affect one’s immune system or affect bacterial resistance,” she says. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water aren’t available, both in general and to protect against COVID-19.

The CDC also states: “Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer does not cause antibiotic resistance. … Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill germs quick and in a different way than antibiotics. There is no chance for the germs to adapt or develop resistance.”

One way disinfecting your hands can indirectly leave you susceptible to pathogens is through its drying effect: “I have seen that some people’s hand-washing habits have left them with dry, cracked skin, and that can predispose to bacteria invading into the skin,” says Dr. Liu. “But as long as the skin barrier is intact, this shouldn’t be an issue.”

The easy solution here? Moisturize! Oh, and don’t just replace hand washing or hand sanitizing with wearing gloves in public—they’re not an equal substitute. Gloves are just a barrier method, and can give you a false sense of security. “I see people out in public wearing gloves and touching all kinds of stuff at the grocery store, and then using the same gloves to adjust their glasses and dial on their phones,” says Dr. Liu.

If you do wear gloves out, you still need to avoid touching your face, wash your hands after using them, and disinfect the things you did touch while you had the gloves on, like your keys.

But I’ve heard embracing a germy world can be good for immunity. What’s the deal?

Again, there’s no such thing as cleaning your hands too much right now, says Dr. Liu. The convo about how germs are good for you derives from the hygiene hypothesis, which is the idea that exposing people, and in particular kids, to germs allows their immune systems to properly develop and helps them avoid health issues like asthma and allergies. Basically: This theory says it’s possible to clean and disinfect too much, that doing so could have detrimental effects on people’s health over time. But this doesn’t apply to the current pandemic situation, despite the misconceptions.

Here’s the thing: Regardless of where you come down on the five-second rule in the regular world, the current world is a totally different beast—don’t test the hygiene hypothesis by exposing yourself to COVID-19.

So can I keep sanitizing my hands as I see fit?

You bet. Dr. Liu says to keep up the hand washing and hand sanitizing, which are both excellent at killing COVID-19. “I don’t think that people need to worry too much about over-hand sanitizing or washing their hands too much, as long as they’re taking care of their skin,” she says.

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