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Hand Soaps & Hand Sanitizers

Navigation: Minimum Sustainable Recommendations | What are the Issues? | What are the Options? 

Did you know...Due to the popularity and ease of access to antibacterial products, Americans dump more than one million pounds of triclosan and triclocarban into the environment every year! (Suite, 2010). The Canadian Medical Association has asked the Canadian Federal government to ban triclosan use in household products under concerns of creating bacterial resistance and producing dangerous side products (chloroform). (Canadian Medical Association, 2009).

Minimum Sustainable Recommendations

Minimum specifications for the purchase of liquid hand soaps include:

  • Hand soap must be Green Seal or  EcoLogo certified.

Minimum specifications for the purchase of antiseptic hand rub/hand sanitizer required by food services and health care facilities as well as other needed applications include:

  • Instant hand antiseptic products must be EcoLogo certified.

Other things to consider

Consideration should be given to the dispensing unit required to deliver the soap.  If dispensers are required, information about various dispensing options that increase hygiene, minimize cost and maximize environmental savings should be requested.  Cost savings are often associated with the use of energy efficient (long battery life) touchless automatic foam dispensers that deliver the correct dose of soap required for proper hand washing.  Reliable controlled dispensing of concentrated soap as foam eliminates overuse and costly waste.  Dispensing concentrated soap also ensures more hand washes per dispenser leading to less labour cost associated with dispenser refilling.

In addition to the dispenser, information about the soap dispenser refill packaging should be requested at the time of purchase.  Request the vendor provide options such as box-less refills which can significantly reduce packaging waste helping you maximize your environmental impact.


What are the issues?

Proper hand washing is a vital part of keeping healthy. Hand washing is accomplished either using soap and water or if water is not around, using hand sanitizers. Both methods are intended to effectively remove microorganisms that may cause illness.

The World Health Organization, Health Canada and the U.S. Centre for Disease Control all provide guidelines for hand hygiene in general and for those working in Health Care facilities.  In all instances they recommend washing hands with soap and water (liquid soap in health care facilities) when hands are visibly dirty or contaminated with proteinaceous material, visibly soiled with blood or other body fluids, if exposure to potential spore-forming organisms is strongly suspected or after using the restroom.  If water is not available, they recommend alcohol-based antiseptic hand “rub” (with more than 60% alcohol) for routine hand cleaning.

Some soaps and antiseptic hand rubs contain chemicals such as those in fragrances, as well as parabens and triclosan, which may be a threat to human health. When hand washing, these chemicals end up in the natural environment when they go down the drain.

Fragrance is the most common ingredient found in personal care products. Most of the chemicals making up fragrances are synthetic and may be toxic. Symptoms associated with the use of fragrances, (asreported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) include headaches, dizziness, rashes, skin discoloration and allergic skin irritation.

Parabens are a group of chemicals used as an antimicrobial agent (preservative) in some soap, hand sanitizers and cosmetics.  Parabens can easily penetrate the skin and are endocrine disrupters because they interfere with normal hormone function.  Parabens can also cause allergic reactions or contact dermatitis in some people.  When discharged downstream from sewage treatment plants, parabens enter the ecosystem and interfere with hormone function, altering the reproductive and metabolic behaviors of fish and other biota.  The European Union recently restricted the concentration of parabens in cosmetics.

Triclosan and triclocarban chemicals are effective in reducing and controlling bacterial contamination on the hands and on treated products. Because these chemicals kill bacteria, the possibility of it contributing to bacteria resistance has become a concern.  Reports also suggest that triclosan can combine with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform, which the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a probable human carcinogen. In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) detected triclosan in 58% of the national streams tested. Triclosan can accumulate in the environment and is toxic to microalgae, an important constituent of aquatic ecosystems. Triclosan and triclocarban are also thought to impact aquatic environments because of their potential to act as hormone disrupting chemicals. 


What are the options?

Heightened awareness about the importance of frequent hand washing by the health care community has resulted in the proliferation of hand-washing products on the market.  Purchasing professionals are tasked with purchasing only those products that meet the health care requirements while at the same time mitigate the potential health and environmental impacts associated with the purchase. 

The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) has a green cleaning prerequisite for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) certification.  The LEED-EBOM green cleaning prerequisite requires the development of strategies for promoting and improving hand hygiene, including both hand washing with soap that does not contain antimicrobial agents, and the use of alcohol-based waterless hand sanitizers. 

LEED-EBOM requires the purchase of either Green Seal (GS-41), EcoLogo certified hand soaps.  The certifications outline criteria ensuring soaps are phosphate free, biodegradable and non-carcinogens.  These standards also prohibit the use of chemicals such as parabens, triclosans, and triclocarbans.  Fragrances are allowed if produced using the Fragrances Code of Practice of the International Fragrance Association, plus the dyes used must be food grade. 

EcoLogo has also developed certification for antiseptic hand rub (hand sanitizers) which may be required for use in food services and health care facilities as well as other applications.  Under this certification, hand sanitizers have to be at least 73% biobased – which may be ethanol or other compounds. The biobased content has to be from sustainably harvested organic materials. The hand sanitizers also have to pass performance tests (of their antiseptic capability) as outlined by Health Canada. In addition to ensuring the alcohol content is biobased, these certified hand sanitizers do not contain endocrine disrupters, triclosans, triclocarbans, fragrances or dyes.


Last updated: November 2020


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