Usage of Hand Sanitizers among Children

With the emphasis on hand hygiene during COVID-19, every household now has bottles of hand sanitizer sitting somewhere, and these may be easily accessed by children.

The danger? Hand sanitizer is meant only for topical application and not for consumption. There are several reports of unintentional ingestion by toddlers and intentional intentional by teens. This article is meant to help families use this household item safely.

Why is hand sanitizer dangerous to ingest?

It’s dangerous to ingest any product not intended for human consumption. In case of hand sanitizer, the biggest reason to avoid consumption is the high alcohol content. Hand sanitizers typically contain 60-80% ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.

This is very high, and consumption may lead to alcohol poisoning. A 500ml bottle of hand sanitizer is equivalent to five shots of hard liquor.

What’s the danger for children?

If a child accidentally licks some hand sanitizer or ingests a squirt, it may taste horrible but it won't cause any injury. However, consuming several squirts would make him/her intoxicated. Excessive consumption, though, can lead to vomitting, liver damage, seizures, coma and death. Hence, always keep hand sanitizer out of your child’s reach when not in use. Adults must supervise usage among toddlers and younger kids.

Which hand sanitizers should my family avoid? Which have been recalled?

Health agencies have noticed that a number of hand sanitizers use methanol, or wood alcohol, but have been mislabeled as ethyl/isopropyl alcohol. It’s important to avoid these products: Methanol is toxic when absorbed through the skin, and life threatening if ingested.

Which is better - isopropyl alcohol or ethyl alcohol?

Both of these forms of alcohol are equally effective as germ-killing agents. Ethyl alcohol is extracted from plants/grains and is commonly used in alcoholic beverages. However, isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, is not meant to be swallowed.

Are non-alcoholic sanitizers more suitable for children?

Some brands recommend alcohol-free sanitizers for children. These use benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient instead of alcohol. However, available evidence indicates benzalkonium chloride has less reliable activity against certain bacteria and viruses than ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and iso-propyl alcohol.

Is there a safer alternative to alcohol-based hand sanitizers?

Washing hands with soap and water is the preferred way to get rid of germs in most situations. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer should be used when soap and water are not readily available.