Fact Checked

Could Your Hand Sanitizer Be Doing More Harm Than Good?

COVID-19 infection rates have started to increase again all over the United States. With the country struggling to prevent the virus from spreading, sanitizing products continue to fly off store shelves. With so many different products available, it’s important to make sure the ones you are choosing are safe for you and your family. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently put out a safety alert mentioning an alarming trend among the ingredients of different hand sanitizer products available on the market. The FDA has found multiple hand sanitizer products that are contaminated with the poisonous substance methanol. 

How Does Hand Sanitizer Help In COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an infection that is caused by a virus. The virus spreads throughout the population when you come into close contact with someone who currently has the virus, via multiple different methods. These include talking, sneezing, coughing, and touching objects that have the virus on them and then touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. 

While handwashing is the best way to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, hand sanitizers are another tool that may be used when you don’t have access to soap, and you come into close contact with someone or an object that may be infected with the virus. 

It’s recommended that you buy alcohol-based hand sanitizers that have at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropyl alcohol in them. 

What’s the Danger? 

The FDA tested products and found that hand sanitizers that were labeled to contain ethanol actually had the harmful substance methanol in them as well. Methanol, also called wood alcohol, is a poisonous substance that can be absorbed into your body through both skin-contact and ingestion. 

Recent reports have shown cases of adults and children ingesting hand sanitizer contaminated with methanol, which led to severe health complications and death. 

The FDA does not classify methanol as an appropriate substance for use in hand sanitizer due to serious side effects. 

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How Harmful is Methanol?

Being exposed to methanol has serious long-term health risks. It is important to monitor your loved ones while using hand sanitizer products, especially children, since they may accidentally ingest hand sanitizer. 

Common signs of methanol poisoning include: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 
  • Headache
  • Blurred Vision 

Serious health complications include:

  • Permanent Blindness
  • Permanent damage to the nervous system 
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Contact your doctor immediately and seek emergency services if you feel like you or your loved one has methanol poisoning from hand sanitizer. 

What Products Should I Avoid?

Carefully check the label of every hand sanitizer product you buy to make sure they are safe and have the recommended ingredients. The FDA publishes an updated list that contains all the hand sanitizer products they’ve identified to have methanol contamination. 

Some quick tips you can use on the spot to pick a safe product are listed below. 

  • Don’t buy hand sanitizer that
    • Has methanol included anywhere on the label or that is on the FDA list for having methanol contamination
    • Is recalled by the manufacturer
    • Is made at a listed facility that makes other methanol contaminated hand sanitizers
    • Have a low ethanol or isopropyl alcohol percentage 

Key Takeaways

The FDA has identified many hand sanitizer products that are contaminated with the harmful substance methanol. Methanol poisoning can lead to nervous system complications and death, so it’s essential to make sure you are buying safe hand sanitizers that contain FDA approved ingredients.  

Reference List

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) In The U.S.. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html. Updated 15 August 2020. Accessed 15 August 2020.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA warns consumers of risk of methanol contamination in certain Hand Sanitizers. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-updates-hand-sanitizers-consumers-should-not-use#:~:text=The%20agency%20is%20aware%20of,due%20to%20its%20toxic%20effects. Published 2 July 2020. Accessed 15 August 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What you should know about COVID-19 to protect yourself and others. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/2019-ncov-factsheet.pdf. Published 1 June 2020. Accessed 15 August 2020.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Q&A for Consumers: Hand Sanitizer and COVID-19. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/qa-consumers-hand-sanitizers-and-covid-19#:~:text=The%20best%20way%20to%20prevent,least%2060%25%20alcohol. Updated 15 August 2020. Accessed 15 August 2020.

Yip L, Bixler D, Brooks D, et al. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Serious Adverse Health Events, Including Death, Associated with Ingesting Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers Containing Methanol- Arizona and New Mexico, May-June 2020. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932e1.htm. Published 5 August 2020. Accessed 15 August 2020.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA urges consumers not use certain hand sanitizer products. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-updates-hand-sanitizers-consumers-should-not-use#products. Updated 15 August 2020. Accessed 15 August 2020.

Published September 7th, 2020 by Dr. Dylan Kakos, PharmD
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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