Sanitizing gel: great for your hands, not so great for your stomach

Hand sanitizer sales have shot up since the outbreak of the swine flu pandemic, giving rise to an unexpected side trend: getting high on the alcohol-based substance.


Hand sanitizer sales have shot up since the outbreak of the swine flu pandemic, giving rise to an unexpected side trend: getting high on the alcohol-based substance.

Take a look at the main active ingredients on your bottle of hand sanitizer: aqua and ethyl alcohol. That’s water and ethanol, basically the same ingredients found in whisky, vodka or beer. When ethanol makes up more than 60 percent of the composition of a hand gel, a small two-ounce bottle contains the same concentration of alcohol as four shots of vodka.

In countries where the sale of alcohol is forbidden to minors, swallowing hand sanitizer may seem to some teenagers like an easy - albeit bitter - way to get high. Some teens even posted videos of themselves drinking various hand sanitizers on YouTube.

Hand sanitizing gel is nothing new in the United States, where it was widely used well before the swine flu outbreak. Toxicologists have highlighted the risk of poisoning by hand gel for years: the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) estimates that nearly 12,000 children were intoxicated by swallowing hand gel in 2006 alone. Use of pocket sanitizers by children has even been banned in some Canadian schools. But the AAPCC believes that "with the proper monitoring and guidance the benefits of disease prevention outweigh the potential for ethanol poisoning."

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Hand sanitizer consumption in schools

Some teenagers find the effects of ingesting strong substances like hand sanitizer appealing. These young American and British teens filmed themselves swallowing or sniffing hand gel at school.

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"Large doses of hand gel can cause alcohol-induced comas"

Bruno Mérgabane is a doctor at the intensive care toxicology unit of Lariboisière hospital in Paris.

My unit has already had to treat two cases of hand sanitizer poisoning. In one case, the patient had been brought into the emergency room after attempting to commit suicide by taking pills. Our hospital rooms usually have large bottles of hand disinfectant gel available for patients, and the woman swallowed an entire bottle. She went into a coma and could have died, but luckily she survived.

Medical teams are usually very careful not to leave any kind of medication or potentially toxic substance within reach of suicidal patients or children, but I guess hand gel, because it is so common, had been overlooked.

Drinking hand sanitizer is more or less dangerous depending on the quantity you consume and the degree of alcohol contained in the gel. If the sanitizer contains 50% or 60% of ethanol, that’s already a pretty strong dosage. Ingesting large quantities of hand sanitizer can cause alcohol-induced comas, which in the worst of cases lead to death.

There is another risk, specific to children: their metabolisms don’t handle alcohol the same way as adult bodies, and drinking any alcoholic beverage alters the sugar rate in their blood, causing hypoglycaemia. Children are generally more at risk because a smaller dose of alcohol causes the same damage as larger quantities in adults.

I don’t think we necessarily need to put advertisements on hand sanitizer bottles or cover them with childproof caps. Drinking hand gel isn’t any more dangerous than drinking perfume, for example, so if we start imposing rules on one product, we’d have to do it on all sorts of cosmetics. Every day we are surrounded by substances that are potentially far more dangerous than hand gel."