11 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid in Hand Soap and Sanitizer and Safer Options for Your Family

baby_HandsWhatever we put on our skin is readily absorbed into our bloodstream where it can potentially cause some serious damage to our bodies. We all know how important it is to wash our hands, but does anyone ever really think about soap ingredients? Or think that they could be dangerous to our health? Doesn’t it make sense to use only the purest soap, especially for children? I’ve pulled some information together to make it easier for you to learn about the toxic ingredients in common hand soaps and hand sanitizers, and to learn some safer alternatives.

Don’t Use Antibacterial Soap

People have been told that regular soap isn’t good enough and that antibacterial soap is necessary to lower the risk of infection. Thus, antibacterial soaps have become so prevalent in households; it is estimated that 72% of liquid soap sold in the United States contains antibacterial ingredients. And it’s not just soap; it’s in toothpastes, laundry detergents, and dish soaps, too.

While it is very important to wash our hands regularly, chemical-free natural soap and water works just fine. In fact, the use of antibacterial soap is not only unnecessary but may cause more harm than good:

  • Overuse of antibacterial soaps could promote the growth of drug-resistant “superbugs” that might otherwise be kept in check with little more than a vigorous scrub
  • Triclosan, active ingredient in most antibacterial soap, not only kills bacteria, it has also been shown to kill human cells.
  • When common bacteria are wiped out by antibacterial soap, children aren’t exposed to them and some exposure to bacteria in early childhood can strengthen their immune systems. Without exposure, children may be prone to allergies and asthma.

Chemicals to Avoid in Hand Soaps and Hand Sanitizers

The following is a list of some toxic ingredients common in hand soap, hand sanitizer, and other personal care products. This is not a complete list of all toxic ingredients, but will give you a start when you look at ingredient labels.

1. Triclosan

Here are a few more reasons to avoid products containing triclosan:

2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a common ingredient in shampoos, liquid soaps, and toothpaste; it is in approximately 90% of personal care products that foam.

  • SLS is the active ingredient in garage floor cleaners, engine degreasers, and industrial strength soaps.
  • It can damage cell membranes and possibly cause hair loss.
  • It is also linked to skin and eye irritation, organ toxicity, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicological, and biochemical or cellular changes, and possible mutations and cancer, as reported by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

3. Parabens

Parabens are in so many skin care products; they preserve other ingredients and extend a product’s shelf life. There are many types of parabens: methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben, etc. They are also dangerous and something I avoid completely:

  • Parabens have have hormone-disrupting effects.
  • Parabens can cause diminished muscle mass and extra fat storing.
  • Topical parabens have been detected in human breast tumors. This is concerning because parabens have been shown to mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen, which can encourage the growth of human breast tumors.

4. Ureas

Formerly known as Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl, DMDM hydantoin, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, these chemicals are hard to pronounce and have several concerns associated with them:

  • Ureas can release formaldehyde and cause joint pain, heart irregularities, and a weakened immune system.
  • Ureas are a primary cause of contact dermatitis.

5. Synthetic Colors

Synthetic colors are made from coal tar. They contain heavy metal salts that may deposit toxins onto the skin, causing skin sensitivity and irritation. Animal studies have shown almost all of them to be carcinogenic. They will be labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number.

6. Diethanolamine (DEA)

Diethanolamine (DEA) is used as a wetting agent in shampoos, lotions, creams, bubble bath, and other cosmetics. It is linked to cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, and organ system toxicity.

7. Propylene Glycol, Propylene Oxide, Polyethylene Glycol

Propylene glycol is the main ingredient in anti freeze and is listed on the FDA government website as a known carcinogen.

  • It is found in hand sanitizers, moisturizers, shaving creams, deodorants, and baby products.
  • Propylene glycol weakens skin cells.
  • It is linked to cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, and organ system toxicity.

8. Synthetic Fragrance

Synthetic fragrances often contain phthalates, which are endocrine disrupters that mimic hormones and may alter genital development. Avoid products that list ‘fragrance‘ as an ingredient unless the label states that it’s derived from essentials oils, or look for a phthalate-free label on the packaging.

9. 1,4-Dioxane

1,4-Dioxane is considered a chemical “known to the State of California to cause cancer”, yet you won’t see it listed on an ingredient label on a product.

  • It is considered a ‘contaminant’ or ‘by-product’ of the ethoxylation process, rather than an ingredient.
  • Avoid synthetic ethoxylated ingredients, including those with myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, any other “eth,” PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol, in their names.

10. Ethyl Alcohol (Ethanol)

Ethyl alcohol is a common ingredient in hand sanitizer. It is linked to cancer, birth defects, developmental/reproductive toxicity, and organ system toxicity.

11. Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC)

BAC is used in hand sanitizers and belongs to a group of germicides knows as “quats“. It is linked to cancer, allergies/immunotoxicity, and organ system toxicity.

Always Read Labels – Even For ‘Natural’ or ‘Organic’ Products

After reading about all those toxic ingredients, you may decide to switch to a product labeled “natural” or “organic”. But you need to be aware that many toxic ingredients are still in products mislabeled natural or organic. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) released a study of personal care products claiming to be “natural” or “organic” and some of the leading brands were found to contain 1,4-dioxane. Products certified under the USDA National Organic Program did not contain this toxin.

No matter what brand you buy, you need to read the ingredient labels. Just because a product is “more natural” or “better” doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a huge database of cosmetics chemicals and ranked them, giving them a hazard score. On their site, you can:

  • Enter specific chemical names to find information.
  • Look up a specific product and see its ingredients.

So go grab your bottles of soap and hand sanitizers – and any other personal care items you have. Then go to the cosmetics database website and look up the ingredients and see for yourself their hazard score. It’s especially scary to read the ingredient labels for some of the children’s soap.

So What Products Can I Use?

After you’ve looked at the ingredients in your soaps and sanitizers, you are probably feeling hopeless. Those toxic chemicals are everywhere! But there are safer options for cleaning your hands. Here are a few things we use:

  • Hand Sanitizer: We like the CleanWell cleanwellhand sanitizer. The active ingredient is thyme oil, a natural antimicrobial. Having a small child, it was especially important to us that we find a hand sanitizer safe for kids; it is free of toxic chemicals like triclosan, alcohol, and Benzalkonium Chloride.
  • Hand Soap: The best liquid hand soap I can find is Dr. Bronner’s. We pour their Organic Fair Trade Shikakai Soap into our “fancy” soap dispenser. For the rest of our house, handsoapwe pour their liquid castile soap into self-foaming dispensers and add some water. Dr. Bronner’s also makes bar soap.

Where Do I Start?

This week, take the time to read the ingredient labels on your soaps and hand sanitizers. Look up their information in EWG’s Cosmetics Database. And then consider finding safer, non-toxic ways to clean your family’s hands. Come back and share with us what you do by leaving a comment!

Wendy – ParentingTips365.com

Healthy Living SeriesRead all the posts in the Healthy Living series by clicking on the icon on the left.

(Two hands photo courtesy of demordian.)


  1. Thank you for this article, I found it really helpful with my current topic of research :)

  2. MamaWendy

    June 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for reading! Glad it was useful!

  3. Hi,
    Thanks so much for this information. I’m beginning to replace the cleaners around the house with things that are more natural and non-toxic because I have small children as well. What do you think of the bio-kleen line that sells on drugstore.com? I love many of their products but would love your take on it.

  4. MamaWendy

    September 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm


    I apologize for the slow response. You caught me right before vacation and then after vacation I was dealing with a sick child. To answer your question, although I have not used Biokleen products I took a quick look at their ingredients and I am very impressed! The ingredients are great and I absolutely would use these products. Sometimes even ‘natural’ products contain a few ‘bad’ ingredients so I stay away from them. But these seem top notch!

    Thanks for reading. I will answer any future questions much sooner!

    All my best

  5. Great article, thanks! One of my products lists dipropylene glycol – does anyone know if or how that differs from propylene glycol? I’m assuming it has the same worrisome effects, but am not sure.

  6. MamaWendy

    April 16, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    I’m not sure exactly but it’s probably similar. You could check EWG’s cosmetics database to find out fur sure.

  7. Ladies if anyone indeed sees this reply I have found that items through lemongrass spa are free of all of these items… We switched about 2 months ago and love everything. I’m finding they are very affordable as well. Since I use so much and love the message and product yes, I am a consultant for them. However look at the products from anyone. I’m just here to help educate. You may check lemongrassspa.com and leave me out… Or my personal site is ourlemongrassspa.com/tarabailey.
    Good luck on your quest for healthier products!

  8. Hello, I’ve found your article very interesting… and scary. My daughter had a contact dermatitis reaction to something… on her hands and face. Have not, yet determined the source. The dermatologist told me to discontinue use of all antibacterial soap and hand santizers. and to use cetaphyl daily cleanser instead. I’ve compared your list of ingredients to the ingredients of the cetaphyl daily cleanser… and found several of the ingredients. What is a SAFE whole body wash for my family?
    Thank you for your article… very eye opening!

  9. MamaWendy

    February 8, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    HI Jennifer,

    Thanks for your comment! In our hand soap dispensers, I fill them 1/4 full with liquid castille soap and fill the rest with water. You can also buy a bar of soap of Dr. Bronner’s castille soap (I mention towards the bottom of that article). In the shower, we use this natural oatmeal bar soap: natural oatmeal soap. We get it at WHole Foods or another store like that and it’s only $2 or so. Hope that helps!


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