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Keep your hands clean, but avoid these dangerous hand sanitizers, FDA warns

Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In the era of COVID-19, hand sanitizer has become such an ever-present commodity that we have come to take its virtues -- and its safety -- for granted.

No longer. The Food and Drug Administration is warning Americans that certain hand-sanitizing products sold under a wide range of labels could be dangerous -- or even fatal.

Drinking them could cause blindness, liver and kidney damage or death. So could slathering it on one's skin, since it passes quickly through the skin and into tissues beneath. Children are particularly vulnerable to potential harm from the stuff.

The culprit is methanol, a poor cousin of isopropyl alcohol or ethyl alcohol, the approved active ingredients in hand sanitizing products. Starting in late July, the FDA began detecting what it called a "sharp increase" in hand sanitizers that claimed to be made with ethyl alcohol but were contaminated by methanol.

Methanol smells, feels, tastes and evaporates like ethyl alcohol, the inebriate that spikes cocktails, and isopropyl alcohol, which cleans wounds and soothes muscles. While ethyl and isopropyl alcohol have two carbon atoms, methanol has just one.

When consumed or absorbed through the skin, methanol's first effects -- including confusion, heavy breathing, slurred words and altered perception -- will be familiar to anyone who has sat on a barstool for too long.


But when metabolized by the human body, methanol makes formic acid and formaldehyde, both of which attack the nervous system. The optic nerve is the first line of defense to fall, and a victim of methanol poisoning will often begin to experience "snowy" vision and potentially permanent blindness. In fact, this is the origin of the term "blind drunk."

In some cases, death by poisoning can ensue.

Sometimes called wood alcohol, methanol is widely used in antifreeze, varnishes, cologne, copying machine fluids, paint and fuel. It can also be the unintended product of alcohol production when quality control is lacking.

Around the world, methanol is widely consumed as an intoxicant but also used in suicidal self-poisoning. Case studies abound in the medical literature of patients who treat fever, pain and other afflictions with topical applications of methanol, and wind up hospitalized.


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