Experts Explain Why Hand Sanitizers Are Drying & How To Help

Given the function and formula of hand sanitizer, they are drying inherently: Using isopropanol alcohol breaks down lipid membranes or protein coatings, destroying the organism in the process. This is actually how sanitizers neutralize germs, viruses, and pathogenic bacteria—by breaking down the outer coat or cellular membrane. (For more information on proper hand sanitizer use, see our quick guide.) Unfortunately, that alcohol also affects skin’s lipids and proteins in the process. An unfortunate but inevitable side effect of sanitation. 

Of course you can, and should, get options buffered with hydrating bases like aloe or glycerin to help offset the effects (check out our favorites). Additionally you should make sure you are washing your hands as well as using sanitizer so you’re not solely relying on the dehydrating agent. “If hands are soiled or have come in contact with any toxins or pesticides, washing with good old soap and water is the best way to go,” says immunologist Heather Moday, M.D.

But ultimately, there is no way around some degree of drying. “Hand sanitizers that are effective at preventing the transmission of COVID-19 are, by definition, biome-unfriendly. To kill the virus we are all trying to protect ourselves from, they must contain alcohols, which are incredibly effective germ killers, meaning they can kill many disease-causing bacteria and viruses within seconds,” says board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D. “The problem is these types of alcohols do major damage to the natural lipids and fatty acids on the surface of your skin, so they damage your skin barrier.”

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