More Americans than ever are relying on hand sanitizers to keep ourselves and our families healthy, given the global pandemic. But some hand sanitizers are putting our health in danger.
What you need to know about toxic hand sanitizers: In June, several cases were reported in New Mexico and Arizona of consumers who used hand sanitizer products that later tested positive for the chemical methanol. At least four people died, one person became blind, and others had various illnesses that required medical attention.
Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have warned the public about potentially toxic varieties of hand sanitizer, and other cases of methanol exposure have been reported across the country.
Hand sanitizers are supposed to contain ethanol or isopropanol as active ingredients. But now, the FDA warns that some brands have been contaminated with methanol (also known as wood alcohol and used to make antifreeze and fuel), which can be toxic if it touches your skin. If ingested, methanol can cause blindness or even death.
Since first alerting the public to nine potentially toxic hand sanitizers on store shelves in June, the FDA has periodically updated its do-not-use list — which ballooned to 160 brands by mid-August. And more recently, another potential contaminant has come to light: 1-propanol, which can be toxic and life-threatening when ingested.
The PIRG Consumer Watchdog team is monitoring the situation closely and posting regular updates on what products to avoid and how to protect yourself and your family from exposure.
How you can protect yourself: With hand sanitizer still highly in-demand as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, consumers need up-to-date information in order to keep ourselves and our families safe.
To best protect yourself, the CDC recommends you should:
Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, as this is more effective at removing certain kinds of germs than using hand sanitizers.
If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent ethyl or isopropyl alcohol to help keep you from getting sick or spreading germs to others.
Check any hand sanitizers you’re using or are considering buying against the FDA list (found at the bottom of the page).
Get medical help if you believe you’ve used possibly contaminated hand sanitizer and are experiencing symptoms including headache, blurry or impaired vision, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of coordination, or confusion. You can contact Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or your doctor.
Safely discard any contaminated sanitizer. Don’t flush it or pour it down the drain.
And it’s important to remember that any hand sanitizer product, regardless of what kind of alcohol it contains, can be dangerous when ingested. It should be kept out of reach of young children and pets.
You should also watch out for hand sanitizers that:
Falsely claim they can offer absolute or extended protection against the virus that causes COVID-19 (the most they can do is kill up to 99.9 percent of germs, viruses or bacteria).
Are promoted as “FDA-approved” (the FDA hasn’t approved any hand sanitizers).
Are packaged to look like candy or drinks, as this could lead to accidental ingestion.
How did this happen? At the beginning of the pandemic, the FDA lifted many of its normal restrictions on which companies could manufacture and sell hand sanitizer in an effort to quickly make more hand sanitizer available to consumers. Ultimately, more than 1,500 additional manufacturers joined the market. While well-intentioned, it has since become clear that the FDA’s action opened the floodgates to potentially unsafe hand sanitizers.
The FDA has been working with affected companies on voluntary recalls — and on Aug. 7, the agency updated its guidelines to recommend that companies more thoroughly test their products for methanol if they use alcohol from an outside source. However, stricter testing remains only a recommendation — not a requirement.
What we’re doing about it: PIRG is committed to making sure consumers have access to the best possible information on how to protect themselves from potentially toxic hand sanitizers. And we’re calling on the FDA to require, not just recommend, better testing.
We’re publishing regular updates on the situation through Shep the Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit media organization that reports on consumer threats to Americans’ health, safety and security. Shep investigates and updates the public on potential hazards to consumers such as toxics in toys, dangerous trends in food recalls, data security breaches, price gouging and more.
You can subscribe to Shep today for regular updates regarding potentially toxic hand sanitizers and other pressing consumer issues. Click the menu icon in the top left and enter your email address under “Subscribe.”
Content Creator, Editorial & Creative Team, The Public Interest Network
Aaron writes and designs materials with the Creative Team for The Public Interest Network for U.S. PIRG. Aaron lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and spends his spare time playing drums and going for long walks.