Hand Sanitizers: The Hidden Dangers

by Elaine on May 24, 2007 · 41 comments

in Health,Popular

PurellIf you have small children in your house, hopefully you carefully read and heed all warning labels. Any product labeled “Keep out of reach of children. If swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away.” should be locked away and used with extreme caution. One dangerous product that often gets overlooked is the hand sanitizer.

Hand sanitizers are becoming increasingly popular in schools, daycare centers, doctors’ offices, and hospitals. When hand washing is not convenient, hand sanitizers have proven valuable in reducing the spread of contagious illnesses. Hand washing is still the best way to remove dirt and decrease the spread of germs. Unfortunately, hand sanitizers are often left out in easy reach as if they were innocent lotions instead of the powerful chemicals that they are.

The Purell and Germ-X brands of hand sanitizers each contain 62% ethyl alcohol. Hand sanitizer is equivalent to 124 proof alcohol. To give a reference point, light beer is generally 6 proof (3% alcohol) and white wine is typically 24 proof (12% alcohol). It has more alcohol than vodka (80 proof)!

If a toddler ingests one or two ounces, or just three squirts of the hand sanitizer, IT COULD BE FATAL. Swallowing a smaller amount can cause intoxication or alcohol poisoning. Even a small amount licked from a child’s hand can cause dizziness, disorientation, headache, stomachache, slurred speech, etc.

While the makers of Purell claim that their product is not toxic or unsafe when used as directed, young children cannot read those directions. The Purell FAQ states:

Is Purell safe for children?

Purell is safe for children when used according to the directions. Children should be supervised when using Purell. All Purell Instant Hand Sanitizers contain an additive that tastes bitter and makes Purell undesirable to drink. As with all drug products, consult your physician before using on babies or young children.

Snopes.com, an excellent online resource to verify e-mail forwards and urban myths, talks about the dangers of hand sanitizers. They also do an excellent job explaining why children ingest non-food items.

We do not normally use hand sanitizer gels or wipes. At home, we wash the kids’ hands with antibacterial hand soap and plenty of warm water. When we go out, we use regular baby wipes to clean all surfaces that come in contact with the kids’ skin (high chairs, shopping cart handles, etc.). We also try to wash their hands in the washroom before and after eating.

We do keep small bottles of Purell in both our car and our diaper bag. We only use it in emergencies, such as after touching animals or changing diapers when there is no sink nearby. The kids make a game out of rubbing and shaking their hands until the gel is completely dry. We always remind our kids to keep their hands out of their mouths if we see them licking their hands or sucking their fingers, but we are especially vigilant after they use any type of hand sanitizer.

Here are some tips to help keep your children safe from hand sanitizers:

  • Keep hand sanitizers out of reach of children (The packages are not childproof!)
  • Closely supervise children during use
  • Rub hands together until completely dry
  • Explain that the hand sanitizer is dangerous if used improperly
  • Remind children not to put their fingers or hands in their mouth, nose, or eyes after immediate use

{ 3 trackbacks }

Safe Hand Sanitizers and Anti-Bacterials | Natural Family Living Blog
March 19, 2008 at 12:29 pm
For My CH.I.L.D - Change in Little Doses » Blog Archive » Dirty Hands Getting Clean…Alcohol-Free!
March 24, 2008 at 2:13 pm
How to: Refill Foaming Hand Soap Pumps at MarloElaine
April 19, 2009 at 9:29 pm


1 Beth May 26, 2007 at 8:13 am

Thanks for bring this to my attention. I never knew the real dangers. I always treated them as lotions. They’ll be locked away in my house.

I really enjoy this blog and I love your articles Elaine!

2 Elaine May 29, 2007 at 4:56 pm

Thanks for visiting the site, Beth! Don’t forget to subscribe to our RSS feed for instant updates to our blog.

3 Allison Roberts May 30, 2007 at 1:14 pm

I’m the director of sales for Hands2GO, a natural alcohol-free hand sanitizer that is safe for children. It is 99.9% effective at killing germ and because it is alcohol free it is non-irritating to the skin. Hands2GO is also fragrance free. I’d like to send some samples to Marlo and Elaine. Please e-mail me with an address so I can send you an information package and a sample, I think you will find Hands2GO a smarter solution for hand sanitizing.

4 Elaine May 30, 2007 at 2:24 pm

We’re looking forward to trying Hands2GO. Thanks Allison.

5 Gail Brenner November 12, 2007 at 11:56 am

As I go through the information on MRSA as well as the issues surrounding it I can across you web site. I teach Family and Consumer science along with Child Development and Nutrition. This site looks like I can get good information as well as a feed back from others. Thank you, Gail

6 Elaine November 17, 2007 at 12:53 am

Thanks, Gail. I’m glad you like our site.

7 Angel February 5, 2008 at 4:57 pm

I am glad that I found this site, Although I allready knew this infromation, there are many that do not!
I would just like to say mom to other mom’s, Pay attention to the check-out’s specially at say walmart super center’s. they are full of these product’s and they are all within child’s reach! I am only aprox 5’2″ and they all come to my waste, I only noticed this after my child 19 month’s old, had an empty bottle of hand sanatizer, it was only 5 ml. but it was empty and he shook his head yes that he had drank it!, What was a shocker is that not one employee that we spoke with knew what to do in this instant! they did not even know of anything to induce vomiting! know I know that you do not induce vomiting untill contacting poision controll first! It may cause even more damage! Luckly for me my son must have grabbed an allready empty bottle, and he had not ingested it! but the sacre knowing that it is all alchol and what damage it could do was enough! I tryed not to panic, but the emotion’s and stress took it’s toll on me! It tooke me 3 day’s to recover from that scare!
Maybe if we all notice small thing’s like this, we can bring it to the attention of other’s and maybe get that stuff moved out of the check-out’s!!!! It is almost impossible to keep that close eye on the child while you are at the other end of the shopping cart unloading your thing’s onto the belt!
Please keep this in mind the next shopping trip you make.
Frightened and concerned mommy of 3!

8 Elaine February 5, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Thanks, Angel! It’s always good to be reminded of those things. I guess I should consider myself lucky that my kids always go for the candy instead of the batteries, lighters, hand sanitizer, etc.

Regarding possible poisoning, if you don’t have the poison control number handy, call 911 right away!

9 Angel February 5, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Thank’s much! I really think Walmart need’s to take care of this matter, I would rather have them go for the candy or even chap stick than the rest of it!

10 Sacha May 13, 2008 at 1:19 am

My kids go to a public school in WA. state. At the beginning of the year , as well as through out, the parents are required(by the teachers) to buy hand sanitizer. The kids use it before going to lunch. Hmmm. If injesting the sanitizer could cause sick and disorientating feeling, don’t you think it should be stopped.I heard about the possibilty of this last year, that is could possibly cause drunkiness.My kids just dont use it, but they are the only kids not using it, before lunch!!! It’s really strange that the regular, soap and water is only used after the bathroom, but how long would it take to train kids to wash their hands with soap at school? We do it at home. So my kids are the only ones really allowed to wash their hands at “line up for lunch time…here’s your side of alcohol. YUCK. I hope that someone has a good idea of how to raise the awarness and the standard of all this. Thanks

11 Elaine May 13, 2008 at 5:57 pm

Sacha, I was really surprised to read that children are not being allowed to wash with soap and water at school!

At least you are teaching your own children good hygiene. Hopefully the other parents will follow your lead.

Thanks for stopping by, Sacha!

12 rebecca June 12, 2008 at 3:26 am

Our kids school does not have enough sinks by the cafeteria for a whole lunch period so they were having parents donate baby wipes until I complained. Now they supply sanitizers but even use of those is not enforced or even reminded. At a class picnic by the school and on a field trip they did nothing. In this school there have been a MRSA bone infection, mono, strep,
viruses, colds, eye infections, whooping cough, and who knows what else. The PTO just looks at me the times I have discussed this and the school board rationalizes that they didn’t wash their hands in school. They didn’t have superbugs either I say.
My kids have a doctor’s note to use the sinks. That is the best they will offer.
I am running out of ideas how to resolve this.

13 Sacha June 12, 2008 at 12:03 pm

If the leadership at your school doesn’t take your concerns seriously, then you have to be the one contacting the district. If the children are not washing their hands ever at school, then of course there will be more instances of colds, viruses and bacterial infections. Just touching the staph virus to your skin, can cause an infection. We are our childrens best doctors and advocates. Think how far our knowledge has come in 100 years….now lets keep our kids safe and demand time to wash hands.

14 Miranda February 13, 2009 at 9:29 pm

GIVE ME A BREAK! Your child will not become disoriented licking their hand after putting on sanitzer. Have you ever tried it? They would not get past licking the bottle stage! That stuff is beyond disgusting. Germ X adds a bittering agent so that children will NOT eat it. If you child does decide to stick their tongue down the bottle it is NOT going to kill them. It MAY lower their blood sugar…so give them a sugary drink and watch them. Talk about over reaction. The best thing would be to KEEP IT OUT OF REACH. I am an ER nurse, a woman brought her 3 year old in after she thought he drank a 2.5 oz. bottle of the blue raspberry scented germ x…NOTHING was wrong with him. Don’t over react. Just watch your child for signs of “drunkeness” . 99.9 percent of the time your child will not injest enough to become sick at all…put an extremely small amount on your finger and lick it off…now you tell me if your CHILD is going to drink that…ABSOLUTELY NOT!!

15 Lindsey wagner February 14, 2014 at 11:40 am


16 rebecca February 15, 2009 at 10:26 am

We have a PA department of education policy for handwashing and hygiene (search action plan for handwashing and hygiene) that says that students must use sinks with sanitzers ONLYas an adjunct.
The FDA, CDC, and county health department all recommend the same thing.
The stuff is not approved for food workers because it is not on some approved list related to safety around food but more importantly because sanitizers are NOT EFFECTIVE against many pathogens particularly many types of viruses.
Soap and water wash dirt and germs down the drain. These products kill some common germs in lab dishes. That is how they get away with their claims. Search “american businesses hype sanitizers”
Which would you rather do wash them down the drain or give them an alcohol bath?
But we want that quick fix. We want to throw that sanitizer in our purse and carry it around to ward off germs.
We are an easy sell and the schools are even easier.

17 MelindaFrances March 12, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Has any one heard of the dangers on anitbac.hand soap? I’ve heard that anti.bac properties are mutating viruses,and making them resistant to alot of things. It was said that hand sant. was actually better because it just killed the germs out right. Our house just uses plain old soap.

18 Rebecca March 13, 2009 at 7:38 am

I think that this is controversial but it makes a lot of sense because we do know that viruses mutate to survive and become hardier. Sanitizers are good as an adjunct or in a pinch but they are just alcohol. If alcohol killed everything they would not have to sterilize surgical instruments. It takes 30 minutes in pure alcohol to kill pinworm larva. The norovirus and other enveloped viruses are resistant to alcohol.
The contact time and the inability to penetrate dirt on the skin are other issues.
Soap and water whatever kind just washes the germs and viruses down the drain. That is the best option.

19 MaMa March 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Hi everyone,

my cousin brought this to my attention just last night, that hand sanitizer is no good for kids she saw a special report on 20/20 recently. We have been using it religiously since the birth of our son in september. we have our daughter who is 3 use it when we can’t help her in the bathroom because she can’t reach the faucets yet. So can u clearify does this mean that it’s only harmful if ingested IMMEDIATELY after use? does that mean if my daughters hands are dried and she puts her fingers in her mouth she is okay?

20 Elaine March 23, 2009 at 11:31 pm

MaMa, it’s my understanding that once the hand sanitizer dries, all the alcohol has evaporated. This would mean your daughter couldn’t get intoxicated from it once it’s dried, but I don’t know what happens if she ingests the remaining residue, if any.

As for all the recent comments about anti-bacterial soap, I haven’t done enough research to post an opinon about that yet. I do know that a good hand washing with ANY kind of soap is the best way to prevent the spread of germs. Even better than the best hand sanitizer.

Anti-bacterial soap does seem to be everywhere these days. People worried about mutating viruses and bacteria may have to start carrying their own soap to public places now.

21 MaMa March 25, 2009 at 3:46 pm

oh okay Elaine thanks!…by the way i went out and found a non alcoholic sanitizer called X3 clean…Elaine have u heard of this one and is it still killing the germs as good as the alcoholic ones? it doesn’t have a percentage on the bottle for killing germs

22 scotty August 2, 2009 at 12:52 pm

I have a question i just had a newborn and i bought a bottle of germ x hand sanitizer so if people hold her they will have clean hands and she wont get sick. Now I heard that hand sanitizer is harmful to infants is this true?

23 Elaine August 4, 2009 at 11:56 am

Scotty, as I understand it, if you use the hand sanitizer on your own hands and allow them to dry thoroughly before touching your baby, both of you should be fine. The harm comes when infants or small children ingest the alcohol based product.

Some good non-alcohol hand sanitizers are CleanWell and Hands2Go.

I would not advise putting any type of hand sanitizer product on an infant’s hand because babies love to put their hands in their mouths.

As always, washing with soap and warm water is the best.

24 Jean Harvey August 15, 2009 at 4:28 pm

I teach at a low-income school whereas parents cannot afford to send hand santizers for the students. Does your company give free supplies of hand santizers to schools.

25 Liz September 4, 2009 at 11:02 pm

My opinion is that we should not use antibacterial products. Triclosan is usually the main ingredient and it is very harmful to the environment. Regular soap and water do a very good job of killing germs and sanitizers should only be used when water is not available.

26 Liz September 4, 2009 at 11:04 pm

For information of safe products for babies, I suggest you look at safbaby.com.

27 Elaine M. September 8, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Liz, I agree that soap and warm water is best, when available. We only use hand sanitizers as a last resort. Thanks for the safbaby link, too.

28 Talia October 29, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Yes, I prefer to wash my hands as well, however, if you’re not washing them diligently for a minimum of 20 seconds, you’re not washing properly. My son’s daycare taught him to sing Happy Birthday and then he knows he’s done while washing. Note that Wet Ones and other non-alcohol based antibacterial wipes/sprays are NOT strong enough to fight H1N1, so be sure to use Purell or wash hands properly to fight it off. Lysol, Clorox and other wipes are effective in cleaning surfaces as well.

29 Elaine October 29, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Thanks, Talia, that’s a good tip. I heard about singing Happy Birthday before, but forgot to post it.

To representatives of the non-alcohol based products such as CleanWell and Hands2Go, how do you respond to the CDC and other recommendations to use an alcohol based hand sanitizer?

30 Liz October 31, 2009 at 10:45 am

Singing the ABCs while washing hands is a good way to teach children how long to wash also.

I want to comment on antibacterial soaps. They contain triclosan which is extremely harmful to the environment and the kill the good germs as well, so plain old fashioned soap and water are preferred to antibacterials. I avoid hand sanitizers except when there is no soap and water available which is rare. I think schools should provide time for children to use soap and water before eating and avoid the use of sanitizers and baby wipes. There may be harmful synthetic chemicals on the wipes and those would then be ingested. There are cases of children ingesting sanitizers and they can be found on snopes.com. see Environmentalworkinggroup.org or safbaby.com for more info on synthetic chemicals which have not been proven to be safe.

31 Elaine October 31, 2009 at 10:59 am

Liz, thanks for your comments. I have read that triclosan is bad for the environment. We no longer purchase hand soaps containing triclosan, though it’s a bit hard to find liquid soaps without them now. I hear Trader Joe’s has a good line of natural, non-anti-bacterial liquid soaps.

I have explained to my children that hand sanitizers kill the germs, but still leave the dead germs on your hands. We always wash our hands as soon as we can get to a sink to get rid of any germs, dead or alive.

32 debbie thomas April 26, 2010 at 12:02 pm

I work at a elementary school, and our children want to know what happens to the dirt and germs on your hands when you use hand sanitizers. as with soap and water you wash them away, but where do they go with sanitizers? HELP

33 Rebecca April 26, 2010 at 1:12 pm

The dead germs and 1% of the commonly tested germs plus any viruses and resistant or germs unreached by the sanitizer would stay on the hands unless the are wiped off or washed off by gel dripping off of the hands.
NY & PA Departments of Education both have policies that state soap and water must be used first in a school building with sanitizers ONLY as an adjunct or when soap and water is not available like on a field trip to a real field. The FDA, CDC and most health departments agree. No excuses.

34 Liz April 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm

I would like to tell you not to use antibacterial soap containing triclosan. Triclosan has been found to be harmful. It kills all germs, including the good germs that you want to have around to protect you. It is harmful to sea life and lots of it goes down our drains. If you look up triclosan on the internet you can real a lot more.

Stores should not have hand sanitizers in reach of children.

35 Emsa May 22, 2011 at 7:35 pm

I use Cleanwell hand wipes which contains all natural ingredients and no alcohol after experiencing really dry hands from regular handwipes. Manufacturers should reformulate their wipes so that they are safe for people to use.

36 gary b June 29, 2011 at 2:41 am

hi i was wondering what would happen if i bite my fingernail/ my skin after using hand sanitizer?

37 gary b June 29, 2011 at 2:42 am

after it was dried for a half hour?

38 pamela April 30, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Clean Well is 99% effective against germs AND it’s triclosan and alcohol free. THis is the safest and least toxic! you should include this and research on natural hand sanitizers as well! visit whole foods or your natural store to buy or buy online!

pamela alma weymouth (www.inhabitots.com)

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