Once simply considered an easy and available substitute for soap and water, hand sanitizer has become a problem in recent years, not because of its effectiveness in fighting germs, but because of how many children and teenagers it is sending to the hospital. An analysis by Georgia’s Poison Control Center revealed that between the years of 2010 and 2015, the number of phone calls regarding the ingestion of hand sanitizer rose by 400%. Young children, deceived by fruity scents and flavors are increasingly poisoned by the product, and there is strong evidence that a growing number of teenagers are using it to get drunk with life-threatening results.
A primary reason why hand sanitizer is so dangerous is that it contains a significant amount of alcohol. According to Newsweek, the gel contains approximately 60-65% ethanol, and consuming a 240ml bottle is the equivalent of taking five shots of hard alcohol. Dr. Gaylord Lopez, the director of the Georgia Poison Control Center warned that with this concentration, it can only take a few squirts to cause alcohol poisoning in young children. CNN.com illustrates this with the story of six-year-old Nhaijah Russell, who was hospitalized after drinking about four squirts of strawberry hand sanitizer at school. Her blood alcohol content was .179, twice of what is considered legally drunk in an adult. Ethanal poisoning can lead to blindness, vomiting, liver damage, hypothermia, coma, and even death.
The danger doesn’t just lie in the accidental ingestion by young children. A quick YouTube search will reveal a number of videos of teenagers getting drunk on hand sanitizer. It is cheap, widely available, and there is no age limit for purchase, so it has become a popular choice for those not of legal drinking age. One common method of ingestion, according to Albuquerque Police Department Deputy Chief Paul Feist, is to mix the sanitizer with Listerine to create a “strong cocktail.” Another is to use salt to distill alcohol from the gel creating something similar to a shot of hard alcohol. Directions for distillation can even be found online. Because of this trend, Buzzfeed reports that emergency rooms in a number of states are seeing an increase in the number of teenagers with alcohol poisoning as a result of consuming hand sanitizer.
Due to the availability of hand sanitizer, this is a difficult problem to address. Experts recommend that parents and teachers stay alert and keep sanitizer, especially the fruit scented varieties, out of reach of young children. Parents should also not leave hand sanitizer out and available when young people are unsupervised. Beyond that, it is recommended that parents purchase foaming hand sanitizers as it is more difficult to separate the alcohol from foam than from gel.
Chris Clancy is the in-house Content Manager for JourneyPure’s Digital Marketing team, where he gets to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and researcher, with strong working knowledge of hospital systems, health insurance, content strategy, and public relations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids.