The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first warned consumers in mid-June to avoid hand sanitizers that contained methanol, a wood alcohol that can be toxic if absorbed through the skin, or deadly if ingested. Since then, the list of hand sanitizers containing methanol has grown almost daily and includes many labeled as containing much safer ethanol (also listed as ethyl alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol, but tests have found they contain methanol instead.
Exposure to methanol can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system, and death. People who use these products on their hands are at risk of toxicity. But children who accidentally ingest these products and adolescents and adults who drink them as an alcohol substitute are at greater risk of methanol poisoning. It can be lethal at even low doses.
This is especially troubling during a global pandemic when keeping hands sanitized is vitally important to stop viral spread of COVID-19. How can consumers be sure the hand sanitizer they are using doesn’t contain toxic methanol? Unfortunately, there is no surefire way.
The FDA encourages consumers to buy reputable brands. But even brands that we have trusted for years have been hard to find in recent months and many of us have had to resort to unfamiliar brand names. “Be aware that sometimes ‘cheap’ might not always be so good,” Dr. William Banner, Medical Director of the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information and a past president of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, told Live Science. Some products made by small companies “who just jumped into a market” might not be as trustworthy as established brands.
With any hand sanitizer product, you should first look at the product’s label. It should list ethanol (or ethyl alcohol) or isopropyl alcohol as the active ingredient. If it lists methanol, do not use it. Secondly, it should contain at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol. Hand sanitizers with lower concentrations of these alcohols are not considered effective.
Be aware that some products that list ethanol or isopropanol as the active ingredient have been found by the FDA to be contaminated with methanol or contain methanol instead of the other chemicals. Again, there is no way of knowing whether the product you are using is free of methanol. For example, there is no smell test. Methanol, ethanol and isopropyl smell differently, but not so much that someone with a nose untrained to detect the difference could tell.
But you can tell if your hand sanitizer has been tested by the FDA and found to be on of the dozens that contain the toxic ingredient. Those products are listed on the FDA’s continuously updated “Hand Sanitizers Consumers Should Not Use” list.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, reminds consumers that using hand sanitizer is a backup when washing with soap and water is not possible.