FDA Issues Warning for Hand Sanitizer in Food Packaging

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put out an alert warning that some alcohol-based hand sanitizers are being sold in packages that can easily be mistaken for beverages or food items.

As the demand for hand sanitizer has increased, several manufacturers are now selling alcohol-based hand sanitizers in enticing packages like beer cans, kids’ food pouches, water bottles, juice bottles, and liquor bottles.

These packages can be mistaken for food or drink and lead to serious health issues if ingested, according to the FDA’s warning.

Several people have already fallen ill or experienced health complications — including cardiac issues, problems with the central nervous system, and death — after mistakenly ingesting hand sanitizer.

Hand sanitizers contain a ton of alcohol

Ingesting hand sanitizer in any amount can have dangerous health effects.

The main active ingredient used in most sanitizers is ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, explains Dr. Carl Baum, a Yale Medicine pediatric emergency medicine doctor.

In order for a sanitizer to be able to destroy bacteria and viruses, it must be 60 to 70 percent ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.

To put this in perspective, Baum says “in beverage terms [this] is 120 to 140 proof, higher than, say, vodka, which is around 80 proof.”

What are the health effects?

The adverse effects will vary depending on the amount consumed and the person’s body weight.

Baum says you could expect significantly different reactions in a 200-pound man versus a 25-pound toddler.

“Effects can range from the expected drunken state — vomiting, loss of control — to loss of consciousness and even death in very large, intentional overdoses,” says Baum.

Typically, a person first experiences vomiting, according to Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

“The main risk associated with vomiting due to isopropyl alcohol is aspiration, which can lead to difficulty breathing and hypoxia,” Glatter said.

In the short term, accidental consumption can also lead to severe abdominal pain, nausea, and irritation to the stomach lining.

The more sanitizer ingested, the greater the health risk.

“As the amount increases, it leads to confusion, sleepiness, difficulty breathing, drop in body temperature, and lung injury, leading to hypoxia and cardiac arrest,” Glatter said.

Some patients may need to be hospitalized and receive intravenous (IV) fluids.

Other patients, particularly those who consume high amounts, may need to be intubated and receive mechanical ventilation, Glatter added.

Kids have a higher risk

Baum says that although young children are interested in exploring — which often means putting things in their mouths — they likely would not like the taste of the sanitizer and stop after a lick or taste.

But according to Glatter, children have the highest risk.

Accidentally consuming large amounts of alcohol-based hand sanitizer can lead to seizures and airway problems that may require intubation.

Some children could potentially experience low blood sugar as a result of ethanol ingestion, according to Baum.

“Generally speaking, children who ingest a taste or a lick of hand sanitizer are in no danger, but anything larger than that should prompt a call to your state or regional poison control center,” says Baum.

For help from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, call (800) 222-1222.

If a child has ingested sanitizer and seems intoxicated or is behaving differently, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

“Any child who ingests hand sanitizer should be evaluated in the emergency department,” Glatter said.

Watch out for methanol products

Reports have recently surfaced that certain hand sanitizers being sold contain methanol instead of the typical ingredients — ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.

The FDA has advised Americans to avoid methanol-based sanitizers as they have known toxic effects.

Methanol can be dangerous not only if ingested, but when absorbed through the skin, too.

“Methanol can be extremely toxic and can cause blindness and death,” Baum said.

Even if a person ingests a small amount of a methanol-based product is consumed — like less than a third of a teaspoon — they should be immediately evaluated by a healthcare provider.

The bottom line

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put out an alert warning that some alcohol-based hand sanitizers are being sold in packages that can easily be mistaken for beverages or food items. Many of the products are also made with flavors like chocolate or raspberry.

If ingested, hand sanitizer can lead to serious health issues, especially in children. Though a lick or taste should be OK, anything more should promptly be evaluated by a healthcare provider, health experts say.

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