Hand sanitizer, such as Purell, is a product for cleaning your hands when you don’t have soap and water. They kill germs, like viruses and bacteria, helping to stop the spread of colds and the flu.
Some brands use alcohol to kill the germs, while others use different chemicals. Hand sanitizer is very safe when used in the right way. Its growing availability in public places has likely helped slow the spread of illnesses.
When Hand Sanitizer is Dangerous
Young children may swallow hand sanitizer by getting into the bottle or licking it off their hands. Because of the scents and other ingredients included, it does not taste good. This is often enough to keep young children from drinking harmful amounts. It usually deters older kids who want to experiment.
Some people misuse it by drinking it on purpose for the alcohol. Most are alcohol-based. Like any product with alcohol in it, drinking enough can give a person a “buzz” or make them drunk.
The Scope of the Problem
Every year poison control centers manage several thousand calls related to children swallowing hand sanitizer. In 2017, through October 31, poison centers received reports of 15,649 exposures in children 12 years and younger. These were mostly cases of children swallowing it, but some also got it in their eyes or on their skin.
A child who swallows any more than a taste could be at risk for alcohol poisoning. This is because most hand sanitizer products contain more than 60 percent ethyl alcohol, a stronger alcohol concentration than most hard liquors.
Alcohol poisoning can cause confusion, vomiting and drowsiness.
How can I prevent hand sanitizer poisoning?
- Washing with soap and water is recommended for hand hygiene outside of health care settings.
- When using hand sanitizer, apply a dime-sized amount to dry hands and rub hands together until completely dry.
- Use alcohol-free hand sanitizer if you have young children in the house or workplace, or if you are concerned about abuse.
- Place hand sanitizer out of the reach of children.
- Keep hand sanitizer in its original container.
- Watch children when they use hand sanitizer.
What should I do if someone has swallowed hand sanitizer?
If someone has swallowed hand sanitizer or gotten it in their eyes, call the Northern New England Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222, chat online or text POISON to 85511. The poison center is open 24/7 to help you with possibly harmful exposures to hand sanitizer, or to answer other questions.
Gayle Finkelstein is Vermont Poison Prevention Educator with the Northern New England Poison Center in Community Health Improvement at the University of Vermont Medical Center.