Germ-fighting has become a literal contact sport since the spread of COVID-19. Extending beyond household cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers, now the demand for items with antiseptic properties has spread to the world of beauty.
Products that promise to disinfect, sanitize and purify your beauty routine have become all the rage lately ― especially when you consider our makeup brushes are loaded with potentially deadly bacteria ― but there are many mysteries about whether disinfecting, sanitizing and purifying will actually fight COVID-19. Science-backed data notwithstanding, there are plenty of products for sale that claim to provide an added barrier of protection against COVID-19, and plenty more that technically don’t claim to do any such thing, but are assumed to do so as a result of clever marketing, coupled with consumer fears.
To establish what works and what doesn’t, we spoke with experts to clear it all up. But first, let’s find out how the science works.
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All germs are not created equally, and neither is their treatment
Germs, which exist everywhere, are tiny living beings that can cause illness in humans. Though the term itself is nonspecific and refers to various organisms (such as fungi, bacteria and viruses) that lead to infection and disease, treatment of these respective germs requires specificity in order to be successful.
As unique as they may be in name and structure, two types of germ in particular ― bacteria and viruses ― are regularly mistaken for one another, which often leads to assumed interchangeability of their remedies. Deciphering between the two can be difficult, and often requires testing, because according to board-certified physician Brooke Goldner, “they can be spread in similar ways and can cause similar symptoms.” Comparable indicators and discomforts aside, treating these germs entails entirely different approaches.
“It’s important to understand that you need different medications to target bacteria versus viruses,” said Goldner, who specializes in autoimmune diseases and disease reversal. While bacterial infections can typically be treated with antibiotics, infections caused by viruses (like COVID-19) cannot. As far as virus treatment goes, “antiviral medications can help with some infections and block their ability to spread in the body… but do not kill the virus,” Goldner said.
The difference between ‘antimicrobial,’ ‘antibacterial’ and other buzzwords
The influx of germ-fighting products saturating the market (especially since the onset of COVID-19), with their vague claims of germicidal capability, has caused much confusion. Terms like “antimicrobial,” “antibacterial” and “kills germs on contact” have become popular, often plastered across product packaging. With minimal explanation offered as to what they specifically combat, these illness-tackling promises don’t always add up and may not have any effect at all on the spread of COVID-19.
“Antimicrobial agents kill microbes… so generally speaking, they can be used to kill COVID-19,” said emergency medicine specialist Robert Helman. However, products that offer antibacterial properties, according to Helman, do not have the same ability, “since antibacterial agents kill only bacteria and COVID-19 is a virus.”
As impressive a success rate as it may sound, products that promise to kill 99% of germs on contact are not instantly effective or universally defensive. Goldner cautions that “contact with the product must be for a significant period of time. For example, a quick rinse of your hands with soap will leave behind a lot more active viruses or bacteria, whereas a full 30 seconds of washing hands [with the same soap] will remove most or all of these particles.”
Goldner also recommends examining product labels “to see if the germs it kills are indeed the ones you are trying to eliminate, since not all products are effective against the same germs.”
Can beauty products help beat the bad stuff?
Disinfecting is ubiquitous these days, so it was inevitable that beauty and hygiene products would soon be judged by their antiseptic attributes. Many cosmetics, skin care products and aesthetic devices have been given sanitary upgrades and promise added protection against harmful germs. Although some of the details are disputable, there is an effort being made to market these antiseptic properties nonetheless.
Can their efforts provide a barrier against contracting COVID-19 ― or any other illnesses, for that matter? We’ll let medical experts answer that.
Germ-fighting claim: According to a brand rep, this product can “sanitize makeup brushes and cosmetic tools.”
Expert response: Dermatologist Sapna Westley agrees that “the Puritize home device, which is UVC based, has data for being antibacterial as well as antiviral. Currently many hospitals, operating rooms and doctor’s offices are using UVC for germicidal properties in the age of COVID.”
Product: Nu Skin’s ageLOC LumiSpa
Germ-fighting claim: The brand’s website says this product gently yet deeply cleanses away dirt, oil, makeup and toxins through its patented counter-rotating, pore-tightening action.
Expert response: Westley “does not see anything specifically germicidal with the Nu Skin LumiSpa,” but thinks “it seems to be a good cleansing and exfoliating product for the skin.”
Product: BioSilk Health + Beauty Antibacterial Shield Lotion with Aloe Vera, Lavender & Silk
Germ-fighting claim: A brand spokesperson said that “this lotion uses Benzalkonium Chloride – 0.13% (Antimicrobial) to kill 99.9% of germs and help provide protection against germs that you may come into contact with later.”
Expert response: “If and when used properly, products containing benzalkonium chloride can be effective in killing microbes on recommended surfaces,” Helman says. However, Goldner warns that per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “evidence shows that benzalkonium chloride is less reliably effective against the coronavirus than alcohol.”
Product: Elina Organics Personal Protection Mist
Germ-fighting claim: According to a brand spokesperson, “this sanitizing and purifying mist is created from food-grade ingredients to protect you from pathogens that you could get on your hair, clothes, shoes, or even accessories.”
Expert response: “Using 70% ethyl alcohol, colloidal silver and copper may have some benefit,” Westley says. “Copper in nanoparticles has some data for being antibacterial, and colloidal silver has been known to be antibacterial and used on wounds.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.