We all know the drill by now: wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Do this especially after using the restroom, before eating, and after you coughed, sneezed, or have blown your nose. In this new normal that we find ourselves, it is also common to have a bottle of hand sanitizer sitting on your kitchen counter, placed near your front door, in your handbag, and in your car.
Cleaning your hands with hand sanitizer is the next best thing if you do not have access to soap and water.
All hand sanitizers are not equal.
The recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that you use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 % ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol, or benzalkonium chloride.
The problem is that some hand sanitizers list ethanol on their labels, but they also include methanol. That doesn’t really seem like such a big deal, the words sound similar, and if you were to look at these two substances in their pure forms, they even look nearly the same. But the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned against using hand sanitizers that contain too much methanol. The thing is, ethanol and methanol are both alcohols, so what’s the big deal?
Ethanol is usually produced through the fermentation of crops – it is the compound in alcoholic drinks that make you drunk. Methanol, also called wood alcohol, is usually synthetically processed and is used to make products like formaldehyde – yes, the substance used to preserve things in medical laboratories and morgues. Methanol is also used to make fuels and is an ingredient in antifreeze.
In large quantities, ethanol can be toxic and lead to nausea and vomiting, or alcohol poisoning, and industrially produced ethanol could be highly toxic. On the other hand, even small amounts (less than four ounces) of methanol can be toxic and even fatal if ingested. Less than half a teaspoon could cause blindness, and it could cause irritation when it comes into contact with your skin.
Methanol can be absorbed through your skin, which means that if it is a component of the hand sanitizer that you are using, it could be dangerous to your health. The FDA is continuously testing hand sanitizers and listing them on a ‘do-not-use’ list. [JP1] The list includes the details of the manufacturers, distributors, and product names of hand sanitizers that are not safe to use.
The FDA’s ‘do-not-use’ list also includes hand sanitizers that do not contain enough (at least 60%) alcohol in the forms of either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.
The alcohol (ethanol or isopropyl alcohol) in hand sanitizers is what kills the germs. Hand sanitizers that contain 60% or more alcohol are more effective at killing germs than non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers, or sanitizers that have lower alcohol contents. Hand sanitizers with lower concentrations of alcohol might not be as effective on a variety of germs. These sub potent (according to the FDA) hand sanitizers could also just slow down the growth of germs on your hands instead of killing them.
It’s not enough to just read the label.
Sometimes a product could include ethanol or isopropyl alcohol on their label while also containing 1-propanol and/or methanol. The latter is not always listed as an ingredient. 1-propanol, like methanol, could be toxic and even life-threatening when ingested. For this reason, products that contain 1-propanol are now also included on the FDA’s ‘do-not-use’ list of hand sanitizers along with products that contain methanol.
Hand sanitizers that contain more than 630 ppm of methanol are deemed unsafe to use. Ppm stands for parts per million. Without getting too scientific, this can be explained that for every million particles (or molecules or units) in your hand sanitizer, up to 630 can be methanol. Although this is the recommendation, the FDA holds that methanol is not an ingredient that you would want in the products that you use.
Sometimes methanol is listed on the label, but then sometimes it isn’t. The FDA is continuously testing products, and especially now focusing on hand sanitizers. The agency has found that some hand sanitizers could contain between 1 and 80 % methanol.
Methanol is cheaper to make than ethanol and can be produced from a larger variety of materials. Because of this, some producers or hand sanitizers engage in something called adulteration. Adulteration is were they substitute one ingredient for another, often cheaper, one in their products. This enables them to advertise that their products contain a certain percentage of alcohol – which it does. But the alcohol that is used is not safe to put in or on your body.
My hand sanitizer contains methanol and/or 1-propanol – now what?
The FDA is working to limit and stop the production, importation, and distribution of hand sanitizers that contain harmful compounds. Even so, it is possible that you might already have hand sanitizer in your home that contains either methanol or 1-propanol or both. You can check the product label and the FDA’s ‘do-not-use’ list to see whether your current sanitizer is ok to use – just keep in mind that even if the product contains methanol, this is not always clearly stated on the label.
If you find that your hand sanitizer contains methanol or 1-propanol, or is included on the FDA ‘do-not-use’ list, stop using it. Dispose of the contents and container in a hazardous waste container if you have access to one. If not, follow the guidelines set out by your local waste management and recycling centers. Avoid flushing or pouring these products down the drain.
The consequences of excessive exposure to methanol could lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, and blurred vision. In extreme cases, it could cause permanent blindness, seizures, comas, permanent damage to your nervous system, and death.
Exposure to 1-propanol could cause confusion and decreased consciousness, along with a slower pulse and breathing rate. Ingesting 1-propanol could slow down your central nervous system, while skin contact could cause irritation and allergic reactions.
What to look for when choosing a hand sanitizer?
It isn’t possible to tell a safer hand sanitizer from one that is potentially not so safe just by looking at it. Here are a few things that could help you decide on which one to buy.
- Look at the label to confirm that the hand sanitizer contains enough ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.
- Check the label and the FDA ‘do-not-use’ list to confirm that the hand sanitizer does not contain methanol.
- Be cautious of hand sanitizers that make misleading or false claims. These claims could include statements like they prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19 and that they provide long-lasting protection (‘for up to 24 hours’ is often a give-away here).
- Do not be misled by products that state that they are FDA approved. There is a difference between a product being FDA approved and FDA tested. According to the FDA’s website, no hand sanitizers are FDA approved, so products that say they are FDA approved are either intentionally misleading, or they are trying to say that the formula used to make the product was tested by the FDA and passed their requirements.
- Consult the FDA’s ‘do-not-use’ list. The list includes the manufacturer name, product name, and National Drug Codes of the products that have been recalled. In some cases, manufacturers continue to produce products under different names or codes while they have had other products recalled. It is possible that these products could also be contaminated with harmful compounds but has not officially been required to be recalled.
Other things to keep in mind.
Hand sanitizers that contain ethanol essentially contain the same kind of alcohol found in your favorite alcoholic beverage. This does not mean that it is safe to consume, though. The alcohol present in hand sanitizers is at a much higher concentration than in alcoholic beverages. Drinking hand sanitizer, even the ones that contain ethanol, could lead to alcohol poisoning or death.
The demand for hand sanitizers has boomed, and of course, companies are looking for new and different ways to get people to buy their hand sanitizer. So they have started to make hand sanitizer that smells like fruit or candy, chocolate even! They are also using brightly colored packaging, sometimes including pictures of cartoons to appeal to children. The result is that the cases of accidental ingestion of hand sanitizer have increased. Keep your hand sanitizer well away from your little ones, unless you are there to watch them use it. Remind them that it is not something that they can drink, no matter how nice it smells!
The same goes for pets. Using hand sanitizer on your pets’ paws or skin could cause alcohol poisoning. They are better off without it.
In this space where we are using larger amounts of hand sanitizer to help us keep our hands clean, it is important to be aware of what exactly you are putting on your body.
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