The substance can be dangerous when absorbed through the skin or ingested.

By Claire Gillespie
June 23, 2020

Hand sanitizer has become a household essential over the last few months, but it’s not all made equally—and some types may be doing more harm than good.

In a new advisory published on June 19, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged consumers not to use hand sanitizer made by the Mexican company Eskbiochem SA, due to the potential presence of methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, wood alcohol or carbinol. (Just FYI: The FDA and CDC still recommend hand sanitizers with at least 60% ethanol, if you're unable to wash your hands with soap and water.)

The FDA identified the following products manufactured by Eskbiochem SA:

  • All-Clean Hand Sanitizer (NDC: 74589-002-01)
  • Esk Biochem Hand Sanitizer (NDC: 74589-007-01)
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 75% Alcohol (NDC: 74589-008-04)
  • Lavar 70 Gel Hand Sanitizer (NDC: 74589-006-01)
  • The Good Gel Antibacterial Gel Hand Sanitizer (NDC: 74589-010-10)
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 80% Alcohol (NDC: 74589-005-03)
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 75% Alcohol (NDC: 74589-009-01)
  • CleanCare NoGerm Advanced Hand Sanitizer 80% Alcohol (NDC: 74589-003-01)
  • Saniderm Advanced Hand Sanitizer (NDC: 74589-001-01)

Following tests, the FDA concluded that “methanol is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizers and should not be used due to its toxic effects.” It recommends that consumers stop using these hand sanitizers and dispose of them immediately in appropriate hazardous waste containers (not by flushing or pouring them down the drain). Plus, if you’ve been exposed to any of these hand sanitizers, you should seek immediate medical treatment. 

Methanol, a colorless, watery liquid with a strong odor, occurs naturally in humans, animals, and plants, but it is also manufactured as a solvent, pesticide and alternative fuel source, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can be toxic when it’s ingested, inhaled in high concentrations, or absorbed through the skin—which is the risk of using the hand sanitizer products highlighted by the FDA. In fact, the CDC warns that absorption of methanol through the skin is “just as effective” as ingestion in producing toxic effects. However, most methanol poisoning occurs as a result of drinking beverages contaminated with methanol or from drinking methanol-containing products. 

According to the CDC, methanol’s metabolic products cause its toxicity, which leads to an accumulation of acid in the blood (known as metabolic acidosis). Initial symptoms of methanol poisoning include confusion, drowsiness, headache, a reduced level of consciousness (CNS depression), and the inability to coordinate muscle movement (ataxia). Some people may also experience nausea, vomiting, and heart and respiratory failure. The toxicity of methanol increases the longer it is in the body, which means early treatment is crucial. However, signs of methanol poisoning may not be apparent for up to 72 hours after exposure. In the most severe cases, methanol poisoning can result in permanent blindness, seizures, permanent damage to the nervous system, coma, or death. 

In 2018, an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health warned that “severe system toxicity and even deaths” could occur from using hand sanitizers containing methanol. When methanol is used in these products, it’s as a substitute for ethanol (ethyl alcohol)—the alcohol that’s used in both hand sanitizers and to make alcoholic beverages. But methanol is more lethal, say the article authors, and methanol poisoning often requires antidotal therapy as well as supporting therapy and critical care. 

Again, the FDA and CDC still state that ethanol-based hand sanitizers are safe when used as directed, and recommend using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% ethanol to wash your hands if soap and water aren’t readily available—especially after using the toilet, before eating, and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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