Take a moment to think about all the places hand sanitizers can be found – in schools, workplaces, hospitals, doctors’ offices, playgrounds, gas stations, and homes. They are everywhere!
Hand sanitizers are typically used to reduce the number of germs on the skin. They are inexpensive and convenient, but can be dangerous if not used correctly. Occasionally, you will hear about or read a story about a child who was poisoned after swallowing hand sanitizer. These stories have led to questions about whether these products should be so widely available. While hand sanitizer can be harmful if swallowed, it is safe and effective when used in the correct amount and correct way.
Hand sanitizers contain one of two ingredients:
- Ethyl alcohol (ethanol)
- Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol)
The concentration of alcohol in hand sanitizers ranges from 45-95%, with the most popular brands containing 60-65%.
One pump of the bottle will dispense approximately ½ teaspoon or 2.5 milliliters (ml) of hand sanitizer. Swallowing this pea sized amount before rubbing it into the hands will not cause a problem, even for a small child. Once it is rubbed into the hands, the alcohol evaporates and no longer poses any problems.
At the poison center, we manage cases related to the intentional and unintentional swallowing of hand sanitizer. One common question we are asked is: how much hand sanitizer is dangerous to swallow? A 30-pound child would have to swallow four teaspoons of most kinds of hand sanitizer before requiring medical attention. To put this into perspective, that would be four mouthfuls or 7-8 pumps of the product. Most children are unable to swallow this large amount due to the small amount dispensed with each pump. In addition, the products are irritating to the mouth and throat, which can stop children from continuing to swallow it.
There is the potential for intentional ingestions of hand sanitizer among teens and adults. Reasons vary, but a common one is using hand sanitizer as a substitute for drinking alcohol, since one of the ingredients – ethanol – is also found in beer, wine, liquors, and mouthwash. Teens also may dare each other to drink hand sanitizer while at school or at home.
As with other household products and medicines, the key to preventing a poisoning with this product is proper storage and usage. Follow these tips to help keep loved ones safe:
- Supervise children when using hand sanitizers.
- Teach children that only 1-2 pumps are needed to clean their hands.
- When not in use, the product should be stored up, away, and out of sight.
- Rub hands together until dry before touching your eyes, food, or pets.
If you suspect someone has swallowed hand sanitizer or gotten it in their eye, contact the Maryland Poison Center right away at 1-800-222-1222. Our pharmacists and nurses are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help with poisonings caused by hand sanitizers as well as other products used in an incorrect amount or manner.
We have a one-page information sheet for printing and sharing here: http://bit.ly/HandSanitizer-Info.