Are the Chemicals in Alcohol-Based Sanitizers Bad for Your Health? Know What to Look For (Including Alcohol-Free Alternatives)
Washing your hands thoroughly is the indisputable way to help curb the spread of COVID-19. But in times when access to soap and water is not possible, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol.
The FDA has deemed hand sanitizer an over-the-counter drug, meaning you can purchase it without a prescription. Luckily, the FDA also regulates its production and distribution. As the demand for alcohol-based sanitizers has grown due to the pandemic, the FDA has recognized the need to address some serious safety concerns. It has been discovered that some hand sanitizers on the market:
- Are contaminated with potentially toxic types of alcohol
- Do not have enough active ingredient (ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol)
- Have labels with false, misleading, or unproven claims
There are at least 150 hand sanitizers the FDA recommends you stay away from and stop using for these reasons. Every time you purchase a new hand sanitizer, you should cross-reference the FDA’s do-not-use list here.
Aside from reviewing the FDA’s updated list for banned brands and manufacturers, what are the things you should be looking for when buying hand sanitizer? We’re going to tell you everything you need to know so that you can stay informed, protected and safe.
What is “toxic” alcohol?
Only ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are acceptable alcohol-based active ingredients for hand sanitizer production. Other alcohol types--methanol and 1-propanol--cannot be used and are considered to be toxic.
If you find you have a sanitizer that is on the FDA’s do-not-use list, it should be disposed of in a hazardous waste container. Do not flush or pour the product down the drain or mix with other liquids. Contact your trash company or local government if you have any questions related to disposal.
Methanol Toxicity Explained
Methanol, also called wood alcohol, is used to make rocket fuel and antifreeze. It should never be rubbed on your skin or swallowed, and drinking hand sanitizer that contains methanol could cause serious health problems like permanent blindness and even death.
In July, the FDA warned the public that “methanol is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizers and must not be used due to its toxic effects.”
But the myth that drinking highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus gained widespread attention anyway. Researchers have subsequently found that about 800 people have died after drinking methanol, 60 developed complete blindness, and about 5,900 have been hospitalized, mainly in Iran, Turkey, Qatar and India.
While methanol poisoning through skin absorption alone is rare, the body’s metabolism of this dangerous alcohol is what produces its toxicity. An intravenous medicine called fomepizole can make methanol less toxic. This may require intubation and some people may even require dialysis. These efforts can prevent death, but the damage methanol does to the body remains largely permanent.
1-Propanol Toxicity Explained
1-propanol, also known as 1-propyl alcohol, is one of the chemicals used in making industrial solvents (a type of cleaner) and has proven to be very toxic to humans, especially when swallowed. The risks associated with consuming a hand sanitizer containing 1-propanol include decreased breathing and heart rate, with potentially fatal consequences.
A known skin irritant, 1-propanol has been reported to cause allergic skin reactions and also aggravate eyes.
The FDA found that some hand sanitizers being produced abroad say they contain ethanol or isopropyl alcohol but are actually contaminated with 1-propanol. Consumption of one of these products, by a child accidentally or by an adult seeking an alcohol substitute, could result in nervous system depression and death.
Other symptoms of exposure include confusion, decreased consciousness, slowed pulse and challenged breathing.
Alcohol-Free Sanitizer Options
Besides the potential for toxic alcohol contamination, alcohol-based sanitizers can actually make skin thinner and drier. This, in turn, makes your hands more susceptible to germs and infections. Below are some alcohol-free options for keeping you safe and comfortable.
- CopperTouch Sani-Disc: a handheld antimicrobial bar that kills bacteria by rupturing their outer membranes; can be carried in your pocket or purse.
- Purell Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizer: kills 99.99% of germs with active ingredient benzalkonium chloride.
- GuardeX 2 in 1 Sanitizing Lotion: packs the germ-killing punch of benzalkonium chloride while nourishing skin with shea butter and vitamin E; comes in two scents--tranquil lavender and orange zest.
Some Notes on Benzalkonium Chloride
One of only three active ingredients FDA-approved for hand sanitizers, benzalkonium chloride is proven to be just as effective at killing germs as alcohol-based products.
An added benefit: alcohol-based sanitizers stop working the moment they dry on your skin. Benzalkonium chloride, by contrast, provides up to 4 hours of additional protection.
A study from researchers at Brigham Young University concluded that alcohol-free sanitizers made with benzalkonium chloride had a number of advantages over their alcohol-based counterparts. Lead study author Benjamin Ogilvie stated, “Benzalkonium chloride can be used in much lower concentrations and does not cause the familiar ‘burn’ feeling you might know from using alcohol hand sanitizer. It can make life easier for people who have to sanitize hands a lot, like healthcare workers, and maybe even increase compliance with sanitizing guidelines.”
The study found that benzalkonium chloride was in fact effective in fighting the COVID-19 virus, specifically.
Whether shopping at the store or online, you should now know what to look for on sanitizer labels. No matter which safe product you choose, please know that they are for use as hand rub treatments only. No sanitizer, even one made with an approved, non-toxic alcohol, should ever be ingested. If you are over 21, stick with wine, a cocktail, or your favorite alcoholic beverage where consumption is concerned.