hands being washed in sink under running water

The Environmental Impact of Hand Soap and Sanitizer

Week 19

I vividly remember starting pre-school and spending an entire week learning the importance of washing your hands. We danced, we sang songs, and we washed our hands all day long. Hand washing is an important part of everyone's day and nothing emphasized that more than the deadly global pandemic, Covid-19. In fact, the average person will go through 500 bottles of hand soap in their lifetime. This week, we'll make sure we are keeping our hands clean without comprising the environment.

What's the problem with hand soap and sanitizer?

Like most of the previous weeks, one major concern is that hand soaps and sanitizers come in plastic bottles. Plastics are problematic because they are made from non-renewable resources, have limited recyclability, and take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down. Hand soap and sanitizer bottles, like all plastics, are made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, which is harmful for two reasons: manufacturing generates significant pollution and the product is not biodegradable. As Sciencing.com put it, "they are difficult to produce and nearly impossible to get rid of once produced". Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks down into tiny micro-plastics that litter our soil, our waterways, and even our air.

So other than the plastic bottle, hand soap is fine for the environment?

Not exactly. While a few ingredients like microbeads and triclosan have been banned by the FDA, there are still a few that, when washed down the drain can be harmful to marine life. Parabens, used as preservatives, are endocrine disruptors that effect the hormone levels of marine organisms and potentially, humans. While saponins, used as cleansing agents, are toxic to an array of aquatic life.

Are hand soap and sanitizer bottles recyclable?

Most hand soap and sanitizer bottles are curbside recyclable, but you should remove the lid or pump before putting the bottles in your recycling bin. Of course, you can always buy liquid soap or sanitizer in bulk and reuse those bottles and pumps!

What can I use instead?

Some great low-waste options include bar soap, glass or aluminum bottles, and buying bulk. Read my next post for 5 Sustainable Hand Soap and Sanitizer Options. You can also make your own hand soap with two simple ingredients.

5 Sustainable Hand Soap and Sanitizer Options →