Do Hand Sanitizers Work & Are They Safe?

September 02, 2020

Getting the Dirt on Hand Sanitizers
In liquid, gel or foam, hand sanitizers are generally used to quickly decrease infectious agents on the hands. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises that while hand sanitizers reduce the number of microbes on the hands, they do not remove all germs. Soap and water are more effective at removing certain types of germs such as Clostridium difficile, cryptosporidium, and norovirus. 

The CDC also advises that hand sanitizers are not as effective on visibly dirty hands. Hands that may be greasy or heavily soiled from working in a kitchen, the garden or from sports and it is recommended they wash with soap and water.  

During the pandemic the use of hand sanitizers has expanded dramatically. The Food and Drug Administration advises consumers to use hand sanitizers with at least 60% ethanol or ethyl alcohol.

Melissa Szarzynski, RN, BSN, Manager of Infection Prevention at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, agrees. “In addition to proper fitting masks, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus we need to wash our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after coming in contact with high touch areas. If soap and water are not immediately available then use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% ethyl alcohol, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands,” said Szarzynski. 

But the FDA is also warning consumers not to use any product that contains methanol or wood alcohol. 

The agency has been continuously sampling hand sanitizers, and expanding its list of brands that have tested positive for methanol, a type of alcohol that can be toxic when applied to your hands and is dangerous when ingested. According to the FDA, "The agency is aware of adults and children ingesting hand sanitizer products contaminated with methanol that has led to recent adverse events. Substantial methanol exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, and permanent damage to the nervous system or death. Those exposed to hand sanitizers containing methanol and experiencing symptoms should seek immediate treatment for the potential reversal of toxic effects of methanol poisoning.”  

Be a Savvy Shopper
The FDA is advising consumers to be on the lookout for hand sanitizers that come in trendy packaging. The increased use of hand sanitizers has brought to the market brands that are packaged in everything from large bottles that look like alcoholic beverages, beer cans and even to raspberry scented hand sanitizer in containers that look like kids juice boxes. People have mistakenly ingested the contents and the results can be disastrous. The FDA is imploring parents not to be fooled and to continue to monitor any hand sanitizer their kids may have. 

“I am increasingly concerned about hand sanitizer being packaged to appear to be consumable products, such as baby food or beverages. These products could confuse consumers into accidentally ingesting a potentially deadly product. It’s dangerous to add scents with food flavors to hand sanitizers which children could think smells like food, eat and get alcohol poisoning,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. “Manufacturers should be vigilant about packaging and marketing their hand sanitizers in food or drink packages in an effort to mitigate any potential inadvertent use by consumers. The FDA continues to monitor these products and we’ll take appropriate actions as needed to protect the health of Americans.”

Recalled hand sanitizers 
Methanol is used in the production of formaldehyde as well as antifreeze, according to the FDA. There are now more than 100 hand sanitizers currently on a recall list and additional products are being added as the FDA expands its testing of hand sanitizers.

Understanding labels for hand sanitizers 

Proper use of face masks