It’s the flu season, you know there must be a kid or two (or a bunch of them) at school with runny nose or cough, and in some way or the other your kids will be in contact with those germs. Then you go look in the shops and see some commonly used preventive products such as sterilizing hand rubs and air disinfecting diffusers.
Everyone knows that rubbing alcohol kills germs, but sometimes I feel reluctant to give my little ones hand sterilisers with alcohol knowing that it would be harmful to get a bit in their mouths or eyes. And after all, these stuff do dry your skin and I don’t want those gentle little hands to be dried and rough, especially when they have irritated skin. Even for me, I have to put on moisturizer after the rub or my hands will turn into sandpaper.
There are numerous essential oil products nowadays that claim to be safe for your skin and used in your home air diffuser. But what are essential oils? Essential oils are mixtures (sometimes containing almost 300 substances) that have been used for therapeutic purposes for centuries. Some of these oils, like tea tree oil, are used as natural disinfectants and anti-septic on the skin for acne. However, these oils are highly volatile, flammable and may cause allergic reactions. Some are not safe when ingested, in eyes or used during pregnancy. According to a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, lavender oil and tea tree oil may cause enlarged breast tissue in prepubertal boys, as they mimic the female hormone estrogen. Therefore when using essential oils, one must exercise care. Essential oils have a variety of therapeutic claims, but there is limited scientific evidence to determine their effectiveness, and many of the existing studies on essential oils are small. As these oils may be good for improving moods or emotional health for some people, we are not sure that they are completely safe and effective for everyone and for its purpose in an air diffuser. What kind of germs does it kill and how fast are they killed? How do you know that it is completely safe and has no side effects to be inhaled continuously and over long periods of time? These are questions that are yet to be answered.
Then there are the mysterious products that just tell you they are a “propriety blend” of plant extracts or natural ingredients, safe on the skin and inhaled, and claimed to be the most used disinfecting product in some Hong Kong hospital. Then I go for the ingredient list… there is none. None on the bottle. None on their website. They are so proud of their natural and best-selling product that they can’t bring themselves to tell us what’s in it. The certificates on their website are either too tiny or blurry to see. The lab test consists of testing the kill times for four bacteria in a local lab you probably haven’t heard of. Needless to say that there are no clinically proven tests to ensure the safety of the product when inhaled. Bleach and rubbing alcohol are also commonly used in hospitals, all the same for those and Dettol at home, but does it mean they are safe to be inhaled? I don’t know about you, but I would not risk it with the health of my family.
Last but not least, the HOCl disinfectants that have been around for the last couple of years. A new concept? Not. Actually HOCl has been used as a natural disinfectant for multiple purposes for many years. But the stability and efficacy of its active ingredient has long been a challenge. It is effective when produced and used almost immediately because its active properties depreciate very quickly. I have purchased a random bottle of HOCl disinfectant and its FAC level was almost all gone within a month, long before its expiry of a year or more. In addition, different formulations of HOCl have different applications. As the product is very unstable, some companies introduces high levels of HOCl to ensure its efficacy at the end of its shelf life. Whilst these high levels of HOCl may be safe for cleaning boats, they are cytotoxic to human cells, which means they are unsafe for humans.
There are no safety regulations in Hong Kong to require that such products be tested or certified, therefore it is up to us to make informative decisions. As mindful consumers, it is important to see if the product’s claims are substantiated. When we buy a product, not only do we want it to be effective, but also safe for the purpose. First we should look at its ingredients to see if they are harmful and also check whether appropriate steps were taken by the company to ensure the safety of the product, such as clinical tests and globally recognised certificates.
Bleach and rubbing alcohol are safe for disinfecting, but not when breathed in, so are PHMG and PGH, the two substances in Oxy HS (see our article “Be Cautious of What You Use in Your Air Humidifier”). If something gets on your skin, you could wash it off, but not in your lungs. After all, it is our lives and those of our loved ones that are at stake.
It is always better to be safe than sorry.