July 2, 2021
Here’s an important alert about alcohol-based hand sanitizers. These over-the-counter drug products, which contain ethyl or isopropyl alcohol and are available as gels, lotions and foams, are applied to the skin to quickly reduce potentially harmful bacteria or viruses on the hands. To be effective, hand sanitizers should contain 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol. Note that such sanitizers are inferior substitutes for 20 seconds of handwashing with soap and water and...
July 2, 2021
Here’s an important alert about alcohol-based hand sanitizers. These over-the-counter drug products, which contain ethyl or isopropyl alcohol and are available as gels, lotions and foams, are applied to the skin to quickly reduce potentially harmful bacteria or viruses on the hands. To be effective, hand sanitizers should contain 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol. Note that such sanitizers are inferior substitutes for 20 seconds of handwashing with soap and water and therefore should be used only when such handwashing cannot be achieved.
On June 16, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that hand sanitizers, especially if used in enclosed spaces or poorly ventilated locations, can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness. These symptoms likely are due to exposure to alcohol vapors from the hand sanitizers.
The FDA issued its warning after reviewing case reports submitted directly to the agency and recorded in poison control center call records. The FDA’s search of its adverse-event reporting system for the period from 2010 to 2020 revealed 50 serious adverse events related to alcohol-based hand sanitizers, all of which were reported after March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic took off in the U.S. Commonly reported symptoms in these cases included headache, nausea and dizziness. Forty-six of these serious adverse events occurred in adults, and four occurred in children.
The poison control center data revealed 299 cases of skin and inhalation/nasal exposures to hand sanitizers from 2018 to 2020, most after March 2020. Eighty-eight percent of the cases occurred in adults. Most of the reported cases resulted in minor or minimal effects, though some required treatment by a health care professional.
The FDA advised that hand sanitizers should be used only in well-ventilated areas and should be stored in ways that prevent their accidental misuse or ingestion by children, who may be attracted to their natural or artificial fragrance or appearance.
What You Can Do
Only use hand sanitizers to disinfect your hands if soap and water are not available for handwashing. Be sure to follow the label directions when applying hand sanitizers and always apply the products in well-ventilated areas. Store unused product in places that are not accessible to children.
If you experience serious adverse effects after using a hand sanitizer or a loved one accidentally ingests the product, immediately contact a health care professional or the U.S. poison control center hotline (1-800-222-1222) for assistance. Call 911 if you or a loved one has trouble breathing or becomes unconscious after exposure to a hand-sanitizer product.
If you or a family member experience adverse effects involving hand sanitizers, report the event to the FDA MedWatch program online at https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/medwatch/index.cfm?action=consumer.reporting1.
To view a useful three-minute video from the FDA on hand sanitizers, try this web link: https://youtu.be/MtlPiiuTZaU?t=09.
To see the FDA’s safety alert, visit the following web page: https://www.fda.gov/media/150127/download.
 Food and Drug Administration. Drug safety communication: FDA warns that vapors from alcohol-based hand sanitizers can have side effects. June 16, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/media/146936/download. Accessed June 30, 2021.