There are two different toxic alcohols the FDA is focused on — plus, other sanitizers may lack alcohol altogether.
Hand sanitizer is a great way to keep your hands clean while in public. Safety officials at the Food and Drug Administration are warning Americans that not all hand sanitizers are made equal, however, and some may actually not be cleaning your hands effectively. The agency has been continuously sampling hand sanitizers, announcing that a growing list of brands have tested positive for methanol, a type of alcohol that can be toxic when applied to your hands and is dangerous when ingested. "The agency is aware of adults and children ingesting hand sanitizer products contaminated with methanol that has led to recent adverse events including blindness, hospitalizations and death," the FDA's safety warning reads.
Furthermore, the agency recently announced that a toxin known as 1-propanol has been found in products that list ethanol or isopropyl alcohol as their main ingredient. According to the FDA announcement, 1-propanol can be increasingly dangerous for those who are exposed to it via hand sanitizer (or actual consumption) due to the fact that it can depress the central nervous system over time. For those who may accidentally consume a product containing 1-propanol, the FDA reports that the toxin is shown to be upwards of 4 times as potent to the central nervous system as regular alcohol. This toxin might impair your consciousness, cause prolonged confusion, and a slowed pulse and hitched breathing.
Over the summer, the FDA had also indicated that some "hand sanitizers have concerningly low levels of ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol." They've updated their list (which has grown past 100 products in total) to also include hand sanitizers that don't have enough alcohol in them. The FDA's list stands at 149 different hand sanitizing products. Most of the products are labeled as "Made in Mexico" according to the FDA; they also have multiple expiration dates (some into 2022), and multiple product codes. According to reports from the Miami Herald, a few of the products on the FDA's list were previously sold at Walmart stores in states across the country as well as Target locations nationwide. As more voluntary recalls are issued, the Washington Post also reports that some products have been pulled from Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club as well.
Certain quantities of alcohol are indeed necessary in hand sanitizers — the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using products that contain at least 60% ethanol alcohol — but methanol isn't comparable to other agents often used in effective sanitizers. Birnur Aral, PhD, the director of the health, beauty, and environmental sciences lab in the Good Housekeeping Institute, says that absorbing methanol in particularthrough your skin can lead to "nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, blindness, coma, and even death" when used frequently. "Methanol metabolizes in the body through formation of formaldehyde (a known carcinogen); it converts into formic acid in the body, which can cause histotoxic hypoxia and acidosis." Furthermore, products containing methanol or 1-propanol may not actually list the ingredient on its packaging or ingredient's list, the FDA says in it's latest warning.
The FDA is continually updating their warning list of National Drug Code registry numbers (NDC numbers) for hand sanitizers containing methanol, 1-propanol, as well as products that have too-low alcohol contents. As of August 13, the FDA's recall list includes the following 149 variations, where you may also view NDC numbers. Recent additions include the following:
The full list can be found below:
The FDA shared that methanol "is not an acceptable active ingredient for hand sanitizers, and must not be used due to its toxic effects." The FDA is asking customers to safely dispose of the sanitizer in question (view full lists here and here). Additionally, the FDA says its working to correct "false and misleading" claims on hand sanitizers being sold during the COVID-19 pandemic — primarily, on those that promise 24-hour protection against viruses like COVID-19.
The best way to keep your hands clean continues to be thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, as hand sanitizer is designed to temporarily clean hands when you can't access a sink. Aral advises checking the hand sanitizers' drug facts before you buy, looking for one of the following active ingredients: Ethyl Alcohol (Ethanol or Alcohol for short) at 60— 95% in the entire formula; Isopropyl Alcohol, or Isopropanol at 70— 91.3% in the entire formula; or Benzalkonium Chloride, usually at less than 1%. "As hand sanitizers are regulated as over-the-counter drugs, the legitimate ones should have a Drugs Facts label like sunscreens," Aral shares. "Avoid purchasing or using hand sanitizers without such labels as they might now have been properly formulated and/or manufactured."
Zee Krstic is a health editor for Good Housekeeping, where he covers health and nutrition news, decodes diet and fitness trends and reviews the best products in the wellness aisle. Prior to joining GH in 2019, Zee fostered a nutrition background as an editor at Cooking Light and is continually developing his grasp of holistic health through collaboration with leading academic experts and clinical care providers. He has written about food and dining for Time, among other publications.
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