Check your hand sanitizer, it may be toxic


By now, you know that practicing good hand hygiene is a key part of protecting against COVID-19. If you don’t have easy access to soap and water you should kill germs by applying hand sanitizer, right? That’s still accurate and important information, but figuring out which sanitizers are safe and effective has become increasingly difficult.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has identified more than 160 hand sanitizers that may be toxic or ineffective. Many of them are contaminated with 1-propanol or methanol, and can be extremely dangerous if swallowed or absorbed through the skin.

Methanol can injure or kill

“There’s a potential risk for absorption with repeated use of hand sanitizers that contain methanol,” warns Dr. Jason Bowling, University Health System’s epidemiologist. “In the worst case scenario, if a young child or adult drinks the hand sanitizer, they are at risk for methanol toxicity.”

The symptoms of methanol toxicity include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Blurred vision

Large quantities of methanol, also known as wood alcohol, can also cause blindness. The FDA warns that young children may swallow the poisonous products and adults or adolescents may drink them as an alcohol substitute. If that happens the outcome can be fatal.

“If methanol is ingested, it can cause seizures that progress to a coma and even death,” Dr. Bowling says.

Beware of inadequate levels of alcohol

The FDA is also warning consumers against using hand sanitizers that lack a sufficient amount of the type of alcohol used to kill germs.  A sanitizer should have at least 60% ethyl alcohol or ethanol to be effective.

“Anything less than that amount could give you a false sense of security. You may think you are killing germs when you aren’t,” Dr. Bowling says.

How to protect yourself

The FDA urges consumers to view its do-not-use list of hand sanitizers. Return or throw out any that are listed.

Look at the ingredients on the label. If the product lists methanol or less than 60% ethyl alcohol or ethanol get rid of it. Don’t, however, flush these items or pour them down the drain. They may be a health hazard. Instead contact your local waste management or recycling center for disposal instructions.

Dr. Bowling recommends consumers examine sanitizers especially closely if they’re produced outside the United States. Most of the dangerous ones are imported.  Also, be wary if the manufacturer makes far-fetched claims.

“Be skeptical. If a product, for example, claims ‘This will protect you for 24 hours from COVID-19,’ you probably shouldn’t use it,” Dr. Bowling says.

Don’t stop using hand sanitizers

Dr. Bowling  doesn’t want consumers to  interpret these warnings as a reason to stop using hand sanitizers altogether. They play an important role in staying healthy.

“Often times there is not easy access to soap and water. Just make sure the hand sanitizer you use is effective and safe,” he says.