“It’s something that you never want your kids to see. Like, you just being up in flames."

By Claire Gillespie
September 04, 2020
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Most of us count on hand sanitizer as an essential part of our anti-COVID-19 toolkit. But although that bottle of liquid is helping to keep us healthy, there's a chance it can cause harm if not used with caution. 

That's what one Texas mom recently discovered. After putting her three daughters to bed at their Round Rock, Texas home on Sunday night, Kate Wise applied hand sanitizer then went to light a candle. Somehow, the flame came into contact with the hand sanitizer and within seconds, Wise’s entire body was on fire. 

“It can be something as small as lighting a candle," Wise told CBS affiliate KHOU. "Because of the hand sanitizer, it just lit my whole… everywhere I had hand sanitizer, it just lit my hand with fire." She was able to take off her burning clothes and get her eldest daughter, who has disabilities, and her pets out of the house. Meanwhile, her other two daughters ran to a neighbor’s house for help. 

According to a GoFundMe page set up by Wise's friend Kathryn Bonesteel to help cover her medical expenses, the incident caused a “bomb-like explosion,” and left her with second- and third-degree burns all over her body, including her face. 

Credit: Courtesy of GoFundMe

“What appears to have happened is she used hand sanitizer and then went to light a candle—and hand sanitizer is flammable,” Will Hampton, a spokesperson for the Round Rock Fire Department, told PEOPLE. According to Hammond, Red Rock Fire Department crews were dispatched to Wise's home around 8 p.m. Sunday night for a structure fire. Wise was eventually transported to a nearby Austin, Texas hospital with burns covering 18% of her body. “This stuff is at least 62 percent alcohol, so folks need to be careful,” he said. Hampton added that no matter what brand of hand sanitizer you use, it’s flammable if it includes ethyl alcohol. 

In a YouTube video posted April 17, the National Fire Protection Association warned that hand sanitizer can ignite if it comes into contact with a “viable ignition source” due to its high alcohol content. 

“The active ingredient in most hand sanitizers is ethanol," William L. Schreiber, PhD, chair of the department of chemistry and physics and coordinator of medical laboratory science at Monmouth University, previously told Health. FYI, this is the same kind of alcohol that's in wine, beer, and liquors but at much higher concentration—around 70%, which is the potency needed to deactivate the coronavirus. Schreiber said if a source of ignition—like the candle Wise lit—came into contact with the hand sanitizer, it could cause damage. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states on its website that although the incidence of fires related to alcohol-based hand sanitizer (ABHS) is very low, “it is vital that ABHS is stored safely.” To ensure fire safety, the CDC advises reducing sources of ignition, ensuring storage of flammable liquids in a safe manner, and establishing methods for quick exits in case of fire. 

It’s not clear what brand of hand sanitizer Wise used—or what store she bought it in—but Bonesteel wanted against buying off-brand hand sanitizer. “COVID-19 has brought many unsafe products to our shelves. Many of which have not been properly tested and are not safe,” Bonesteel wrote on the page. “Be careful of what you put on your body. Make sure what you are using is FDA approved.” (There’s a page on the FDA website that’s regularly updated with details of hand sanitizers consumers shouldn’t use.) 

Wise lost most of her furniture and other possessions to smoke damage from the fire, but she told KHOU the worst part of the incident is her children seeing her in pain. “It’s something that you never want your kids to see. Like, you just being up in flames,” she said. “So I think that part kind of killed me, just because it’s something I never wanted them to have to go through.”

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