We’re all using hand sanitizer a lot more these days. You can find it pretty much everywhere, from the grocery store to the restaurant to the retail store to the doctor’s office to your kids’ school to your home kitchen sink. You may even have some in your desk drawer, purse, and car.
Hand sanitizers are super handy when you can’t get to a sink to wash. They kill over 99 percent of germs and can help keep you safe in a time when we’re all trying to avoid getting sick. Most of us have used it for years without a second thought.
Lately, though, there have been some reports of potential dangers with hand sanitizers. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself and your family safe.
1. Most Hand Sanitizers Are Flammable
The main ingredient in most hand sanitizers is alcohol. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that hand sanitizers should contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective against the viruses that can cause COVID-19 and other illnesses. (Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing germs, so always use soap and water when you can.)
Alcohol is a flammable substance, which means your hand sanitizer is flammable. Just a small amount, if ignited, will burn hot very quickly, which can lead to personal injury or property damage.
What to do: Avoid using alcohol-based sanitizer near a heat source or open flame. Also, don’t light a cigarette, burner, grill, or other item after using hand sanitizer. Wash your hands first.
2. Hand Sanitizers Pose a Risk of Alcohol Poisoning
Because of the high alcohol content in most sanitizers, they can be risky for children. The CDC warns parents that young children may consume these sanitizers because of appealing scents like apple, vanilla, and citrus.
Between 2011 and 2014, a total of 70,669 hand sanitizer exposures in children 12 years and younger were reported to the National Poison Data System (NPDS), including over 65,000 alcohol-based exposures. Calls to poison control centers related to sanitizer have risen during the coronavirus pandemic.
Younger children are more likely to suffer from adverse health effects from these products than adults and can experience problems after swallowing just a tiny amount.
What to do: Keep hand sanitizers out of children’s reach. Don’t forget about travel-size bottles in purses, diaper bags, backpacks, and cars. Supervise children ages five and under when they use sanitizer and inform older children of the dangers.
3. Some Hand Sanitizers Aren’t Safe
On June 2, 2020, the FDA warned consumers about dangerous alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing methanol. Also called wood alcohol, this is a substance often used to create fuel and antifreeze that is not an acceptable active ingredient for hand sanitizers. It can be toxic when absorbed through the skin as well as life-threatening when ingested.
The FDA had tested several sanitizers and had found that even when the products were labeled to contain ethanol (a safe ingredient), they tested positive for methanol contamination. State officials also reported events from adults and children ingesting these products and suffering from blindness, hospitalizations, and even death.
On August 12, 2020, the FDA warned consumers about another danger—hand sanitizers testing positive for 1-propanol contamination. 1-propanol (not to be confused with 2-propanol/isopropanol/isopropyl alcohol, which is safe) is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizer products and can be toxic and even life-threatening if ingested.
The problem has likely developed because of the high demand for hand sanitizers, which has led to more companies getting into the business of selling them. Unfortunately, some of these companies are putting lives at risk by selling products with dangerous and unacceptable ingredients.
What to do: Follow the FDA’s list of dangerous hand sanitizers, and avoid those that have tested positive for methanol or 1-propanol. Some of these include products made by Eskbiochem, Harmonic Nature, Greenbrier International, Midwood Brands, and many more. The AARP also has a list of unsafe hand sanitizers.
4. Excessive Use of Hand Sanitizers Can Damage the Skin
While dealing with a global pandemic, it can be easy to get “addicted” to hand sanitizer. If you begin to use it multiple times per day, you’re likely to notice some side effects on your skin such as dryness, chapped skin, and even cracks and bleeding.
Alcohol is naturally drying. Some hand sanitizers include moisturizers in their products to try to counteract that effect, but that doesn’t always prevent dryness. The problem is that the drier your skin gets, the less likely it is to protect you from infection from COVID-19 or any other virus or bacterium.
Hand sanitizers kill the natural microbiome on your skin, too—the “friendly” bacteria that help keep your skin healthy and strong. When you use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, you kill any bugs that are there to harm you, but you also kill the friendly bacteria your skin needs. That actually lowers your resistance to illness and disease while compromising your skin barrier and making skin feel dry and itchy.
What to do: Use hand sanitizer only when you can’t use soap and water. Regular washing is always preferred to sanitizer. When you have no other choice, use the sanitizer and then follow with a good moisturizing cream. We recommend our Calming Moisture or Body Repair Lotion, both of which can help rehydrate skin and support the health of the outer barrier. (It’s best to use lotion after hand washing, too.)
5. Hand Sanitizers Can Increase Your Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
Hand sanitizer can expose you to several toxic ingredients if you’re not careful.
Sanitizers trigger a change in skin permeability, which means that whatever touches your skin after you use a sanitizer will more readily absorb into your skin and potentially into your bloodstream. In fact, according to recent research, the penetration of chemicals could increase by up to 100-fold after sanitizer use.
Here’s an example: In a recent study, scientists found that using hand sanitizer before handling receipts could increase the amount of bisphenol-A (BPA) absorbed from those receipts. BPA is a hormone-disrupting environmental contaminant used in a wide variety of products, including food and beverage packaging and store receipts.
Immediately after using a hand sanitizer, the participants had BPA on their hands which was then transferred to the French fries they were eating. That resulted in a rapid and dramatic increase in BPA in the blood.
It’s not just BPA that creates a potential risk. Some hand sanitizers may also contain triclosan, a powerful anti-bacterial that’s also a hormone-disruptor and has been linked with an increase in antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The FDA has recommended against using it.
Finally, some hand sanitizers may contain synthetic fragrances, parabens, and other toxic ingredients.
What to do: Be a careful shopper. Read the ingredient list on your sanitizer and choose those with fewer and more natural ingredients. Do be sure they contain at least 60 percent alcohol, however, as that is the only way they will kill the COVID-19 virus.
Were you aware of hand sanitizer dangers?