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Safer Soap: A Look at Harmful Ingredients Found in Hand Cleansers

Armand Coppotelli
January 30, 2018



People often read food labels to ensure a product they’re consuming doesn’t contain harmful ingredients such as preservatives, trans fats and artificial sweeteners. But have you ever looked at the ingredients in your hand soap?


If you’re using an industrial hand cleanser, the label likely lists petroleum distillates as an ingredient. Petroleum distillates are hydrocarbon solvents produced from crude oil. These solvents include mineral spirits, kerosene, white spirits, naphtha, and Stoddard solvent. These solvents are produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil and chemical feedstocks. Many industrial cleansers use them for the removal of heavy oil and grease, tar, and waxes. And you could be washing your hands with them.


 Download Preventing Occupational Skin Disease Manager's Guide


Scary Side Effects


Petroleum distillates can affect the body if they come in contact with the skin. Short-term exposure can cause skin irritation, but the effects from long-term exposure are even scarier. Prolonged exposure to petroleum distillates can cause skin drying or cracking, a condition known as dermatitis. This occurs because the solvents defat pathways around the skin cells, causing inflammation and dry skin. 


Problems with Pumice


Grit is often added to a hand cleanser to help remove substances like oil, dirt and grime. However, there are a number of scrubbers such as pumice and sand that can cause micro-abrasions or tears in the skin. Pumice, a natural volcanic rock that consists of rough volcanic glass, is used in construction, housekeeping, polishes, erasers and beauty salons as an abrasive agent. This common ingredient without a doubt does a good job in these workplace environments to remove contaminants from objects. However, using pumice on your hands will remove the skin and most people can’t afford further damage to their hands.


There are better scrubbing agents available such as corn meal, olive stone or walnut shell scrubbers. These scrubbers are natural and have the right balance between helping to get dirt off and being gentle to the skin. Additionally, there are environmental impacts to using pumice in hand cleansers. In comparison to pumice that will settle in ducts and pipes causing blockages, natural scrubbing agents like corn meal, olive stone or walnut shell are easily rinsed away, not prone to swelling and will therefore not cause plumbing blockage.


Damage from Dermatitis


In addition to the physical impact dermatitis can have on a person, it can also create a financial burden. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 40 percent of workers will suffer from occupational dermatitis at some point in their working lives. Dermatitis can become a financial burden to the employee, as well as the employer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 50 percent of all working time lost to industrial illness is due to dermatitis. Just one case of occupational dermatitis can cost an employer approximately $3,500 in workers' compensation claims and an average disability of 23.9 days, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. As with all occupational disease, prevention is the key, and with most cases of occupational dermatitis, preventing skin contact with chemicals or other skin damaging agents will prevent the disease.


Healthy Alternatives


Just like there are healthy ingredients that can be substituted in a recipe, there are better alternatives when it comes to hand soaps. It’s important to embrace a product that takes into consideration the impact on the hands, yet is still powerful and effective for the job. Low-solvent and solvent-free cleansers are a safer option. Bio-scrubbers such as walnut shells, corn meal and olive stone are effective cleansers without stripping or causing damage to the skin. For example, Deb Group’s full line of Solopol® hand cleansers is free from petroleum solvents and a safe, yet efficient alternative.  


Your Guide to Choosing the Right Cleanser and Dispenser


Once your team learns more about prevention, pick the best-suited hand cleanser and dispensing system. Below is a quick reference guide that will keep your crew clean and compliant.


Hand Cleanser Types


Cleansing Level


Ideal Use


  • Many people are familiar with these general light cleansers, which can encourage handwashing compliance
  • Works well for general hand hygiene and is gentle on skin
  • General products that successfully clean skin in office and public washrooms, showers, and leisure facilities
  • Great for high-traffic facilities where effective, gentle cleansing is required for everyday dirt and grime


  • Antibacterial foams help to protect from infection and to prevent cross contamination
  • Can remove vegetable oils, animal fats, and general dirt and grime
  • Good option for washrooms and other high-traffic areas where germ and bacteria exposure can be high
  • Look for options rated for use in food handling environments where employees can be exposed to foodborne pathogens

Light Duty Industrial

  • Universal light duty skin cleansers for general dirt and grime and light industrial soilings
  • General industrial environments and industrial shower facilities

Medium Duty Industrial

  • For use in removing synthetic & petroleum based oils, greases, and lubricants
  • Great option for organizations looking for cleansers that are friendly to employees’ skin and the environment
  • Industrial environments where employees are exposed to medium to heavy soiling

Heavy Duty Industrial

  • Gently removes heavy soilings such as oil, grease, carbon black and lubricants
  • Contain agents to protect the skin and minimize the risk of skin irritation
  • For use in industrial environments to remove heavy soiling
  • Heavy duty wipes provide a great option for mobile workers or environments where water is not readily available

Super Heavy Duty Industrial

  • Highly effective at lifting difficult-to-remove contaminants such as tar, carbon black and oil
  • Silicone-free and uses natural scrubbing agents
  • For use in industrial environments to remove extremely heavy soiling
  • Wipes provide a great option for mobile workers or environments where water is not readily available

Ultra-Duty / Specialist Applications

  • Silicone-free and dye-free specialist formulations with natural scrubbing agents can remove ultra-heavy contaminants such as varnish, inks, dyes and pigments
  • For use in industrial environments to remove specialized, heavy duty contaminants such as inks, dyes, colorants or paints



The appropriate products should be available and accessible to workers where and when they are required. Creams should be located in key areas such as changing rooms, work area entrances, washrooms and hand washing stations.


Download Preventing Occupational Skin Disease Manager's Guide


Soap is designed to clean hands, not harm them. However, the soap you’re using could be doing just that. Employers and facility managers have a legal responsibility to ensure that they provide a safe working environment for their employees. Addressing hand hygiene is an important part of this. The type of hand cleanser selected is vitally important to skin health. A common misconception is that a hand cleanser’s performance is measured by its ability to clean hands aggressively. Whereas, in actuality, most cleansers far surpass the user’s actual requirements. By selecting an effective product that also doesn’t have a harmful impact your employees’ hands, you can wash your hands of the risk and damage of dermatitis.


To learn more about occupational dermatitis prevention and Deb Group’s complete line of skin cleansers, creams and dispensers,visit



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