Hand Sanitizers with the Wrong Ingredient Can Be Deadly

Hand sanitizers can help protect you against Covid-19 if they contain the right type of alcohol. Products that contain methanol and 1-propanol can hurt you and even kill you.

Why there’s a hand sanitizer recall

Just as the number of Covid-19 cases is ticking up, the number of potentially dangerous hand sanitizers is rising. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now lists 163 products as unsafe because they contain toxic substances such as methanol. That’s up from 149 just a week ago, which is when the agency also added 1-propanol to the roster of potentially harmful substances in some sanitizing products.

Between May 1 and June 30 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 15 people in Arizona and New Mexico were poisoned from drinking alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing methanol. Four died and three recovered, but with vision impairments. Given the array of new products out there and more coming every day, the number of unsafe hand sanitizers is likely to rise even further. Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of having the wrong alcohol in hand sanitizers.

close up of person pumping hand sanitizer into handHelin Loik-Tomson/Getty Images

Ethanol and isopropyl alcohol in hand sanitizers

To effectively combat SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, hand sanitizers should contain at least 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropyl alcohol, says the CDC. Ethanol or ethyl alcohol is the type of alcohol found in beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS). It kills bacteria, fungi, and viruses, which is why it’s so helpful for hand sanitizers. Some mouthwashes and even foods contain ethanol, as do various beauty and personal care products. The FDA says ethanol is “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS, although inhaling it can cause coughing, headaches, or lung injury.

Ethanol breaks down several times in the body until it becomes water and carbon dioxide, says Robert Glatter, MD, an emergency physician with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “These are simple, nontoxic compounds which are easily eliminated from the body.” Note that these are still toxic in high enough doses and quantities, though much better on the metabolism. And isopropyl alcohol can cause hemorrhagic gastritis if ingested. (Here are some home cleaning tips for Covid-19.)

Avoid methanol and 1-propanol

Methanol and 1-propanol are also types of alcohol, but they definitely should not be in hand sanitizers. Known as wood alcohol or methyl alcohol, methanol, is used to make fuel, solvents, and antifreeze, says the ACS. “Methanol is not recommended for any human consumption,” adds Beth Ann Lambert, system infection control supervisor at the Center for Quality and Patient Safety at Ochsner Health in New Orleans. “The biggest risk is in ingesting it but even having it on your skin can cause adverse reactions.” It can even kill you. (Find out if your homemade hand sanitizer is safe.)

No one knows why these compounds are finding their way into hand sanitizers. “It could be improper distillation, accidental contamination, or someone doesn’t understand it is truly harmful,” says explains Haley F. Oliver, associate professor of food science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Ethanol vs methanol: What the difference?

Only one letter separates ethanol from methanol, signifying “just a small change in chemical structure,” explains Oliver, who is also director of USAID Feed the Future Food Safety Innovation Lab. But that can spell the difference between life and death. Ingesting 1-propanol can slow down your central nervous system, which can lead to symptoms like confusion, slow pulse, slower breathing, and even be deadly, says Dr. Glatter. Methanol can be toxic to the body’s tissues and organs, leading to heart rhythm abnormalities, kidney failure, seizures, coma, and, again, even death, he adds.

Methanol can also be absorbed through your skin, says Oliver. Once or twice probably won’t hurt you but repeated exposures could have the same effect as if you actually ingested it, she adds. It may also cause nausea and vomiting, says Lambert. 1-propanol can also irritate your skin and your eyes.

What to do if you’ve been exposed to 1-propanol or methanol

If you’ve been exposed to hand sanitizer containing 1-propanol or methanol, the FDA advises getting medical help right away. You should also get rid of the product in line with hazardous waste recommendations. Don’t flush them or pour them down the drain.

How do I know if a product is safe?

The FDA keeps a running list of products containing any of these offending ingredients. The list is long but, fortunately, is also searchable. Keep your eye on it. Many of the products that contain methanol were also produced in Mexico, which could be another tip-off. You can read the label but, given that neither methanol nor propanol are supposed to be in hand sanitizers, you may not find them listed. (The FDA recently approved two products specifically to combat SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.)

“When you have brand recognition and brands that have been produced and vetted and trusted for a long period of time, then you see this massive influx…it is a challenge,” says Oliver. “It’s a definite burden on the system.” Stresses Dr. Glatter, “Checking the FDA’s website for safe hand sanitizers is essential before purchasing one. It’s vital to do this to ensure the safety of yourself, friends, and family.”

How to protect yourself against Covid-19

The CDC believes that the coronavirus spreads mostly through person-to-person contact so make sure you practice social distancing and wear a face mask. Surfaces may also pose a danger. They recommend washing your hands frequently, preferably with soap and water for 20 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use a safe hand sanitizer. That means products containing at least 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol) without any methanol or 1-propanol.

Popular Videos

Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD, on March 03, 2021

Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.