Attached to purses and backpacks, tucked into glove boxes and desk drawers, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are part of our daily defense against COVID-19, but used incorrectly they can be dangerous or even deadly.
At least four people died and others have suffered impaired vision or seizures from drinking alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August.
The potential for danger ranges from incorrectly storing hand sanitizer to mistaking it for a different product or imbibing it as a substitute for an alcoholic drink, said Dr. Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
“If you ingest high concentrations of alcohol, you are risking your health and your life; the effects of severe alcohol overdose can be irreversible and deadly,” she said.
“Like any product you’d find in a medicine cabinet, these products are designed to be used as intended,” said Chris Gerling, senior extension associate at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.
What’s in hand sanitizers
The alcohol content in hand sanitizers is very high, about one and a half to two times as high as might be found in most spirits at the liquor store, Gerling said. The product also contains denaturants, added biological compounds that makes it unfit for drinking, as well as gelling/wetting agents to make it more shelf-stable or to fight molds, and other additives.
“None of these additives is generally good to drink,” Gerling said. “An accidental sip will probably not cause much lasting harm, but much more would make you pretty sick.”
Even more dangerous, some hand sanitizers that contain methanol, which is even more toxic, are being distributed, warns the Food and Drug Administration. There are over 190 hand sanitizers on the FDA’s “do not use” list, with the number continuing to increase. See it at fda.gov/handsanitizerlist.
Stop using any hand sanitizers on the “do not use” list and dispose of in a hazardous waste container if possible. If not, contact your trash or recycling company or local government to ask where you can get rid of hazardous waste.
Those most at risk for life-threatening effects of alcohol overdose from hand sanitizer products are young children and pets who accidentally swallow more than a lick of the liquid or gel, as well as youths and adults who intentionally drink these products to get drunk or high.
“Some people do drink these products to obtain the ethanol in them,” Calello said. “While that is a dangerous practice due to the high ethanol concentration, it is clearly more dangerous if the product is contaminated with methanol.”
Consuming methanol can lead to blindness, organ failure and even death, she said.
Proper use, storage
Be vigilant when shopping for and storing hand sanitizer. A serious concern is that some manufacturers have designed sanitizers to resemble consumable products such as yogurt pouches, candies, water bottles, beer cans and vodka bottles.
The FDA does not approve hand sanitizers, so if a product says that or makes some other unreasonable claim, it is suspect, Calello said.
If you have young children or pets at home, keep these products up high, out of sight and reach. Do not leave hand sanitizers in easy to reach places. Locked up is always best.
Supervise young children using hand sanitizer and avoid placing in young children’s backpacks, lunchboxes or luggage.
“Hand sanitizers are only part of our defense against the spread of coronavirus, and do not replace thorough hand hygiene whenever that is possible,” Calello said. “Maintain social distancing, wear a face mask and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in your home, car and office. All of these measures add layers to personal safety, and every bit counts.”