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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently warned consumers that some companies are using methanol (also known as wood alcohol) in hand sanitizer products. Methanol is not an effective hand sanitizer, and worse, it can be absorbed into the skin and cause all kinds of nasty reactions including vomiting, blurred vision, permanent blindness, and seizures. Seek immediate medical treatment if you or your child are exposed to methanol and experience symptoms.
Ingesting methanol can be deadly, especially to young children, who are prone to putting inappropriate things in their mouths.
Unfortunately, determining if your hand sanitizer contains methanol is not as easy as looking at the ingredient label. Methanol isn't listed on the hand sanitizers the FDA has so far recalled (basically because it's not supposed to be there in the first place!).
So how can you avoid these scary hand sanitizers and keep your family's hands germ-free without suffering toxic effects? Here are some pointers:
- Check the FDA's recall list. This list details all of the hand sanitizers so far found to contain methanol – 67 brands and growing. Most of the products are made in Mexico. If you have one of these hand sanitizers, dispose of it as hazardous waste (you can search for "household hazardous waste" near your zip code in this Earth 911 database to find out about collection programs near you), and don't pour it down the drain or toilet. If anyone in your family has gotten sick using these products, seek medical attention immediately.
- Look at hand sanitizer ingredients. There are two types of alcohols used in legitimate, alcohol-based hand sanitizers: ethyl alcohol (the kind in wine and liquor) and isopropyl alcohol (the kind in rubbing alcohol). If you have young children, sanitizers that use ethyl alcohol may be safer than ones that use isopropyl alcohol. Both are fine for use on the hands, but isopropyl alcohol would be more toxic if your child somehow tried to drink it (neither one is recommended for drinking!). Also, make sure the hand sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol, which is the minimum needed to effectively kill germs, according to the CDC.
- Avoid alcohol-free sanitizers. These sanitizers often use an ingredient called benzalkonium chloride (BAC), which can be irritating to the skin and eyes, and toxic even if ingested in small amounts.
- Avoid hand sanitizers with flavors, scents, or colors. Hand sanitizers should have an unappetizing smell and taste, and a neutral color. Otherwise your child might be tempted to try to drink or lick the sanitizer. Fragrances may also contain toxic chemicals such as phthalates.
- Supervise your child and store hand sanitizer safely. Use only a pea-size amount of hand sanitizer on your child's hands, and make sure they dry completely. Store the bottle safely out of reach.
- Wash hands with soap and water. This is the most effective way to clean and sanitize hands, and has none of the potential toxicity concerns of hand sanitizer. Teach your children to scrub their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. Here's a video on how to do it.
For more information, visit our article on proper hand washing for kids and parents.
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