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FDA Expands List of Potentially Dangerous Hand Sanitizers

parents applies hand sanitizer to child

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Key Takeaways

  • An increasing number of hand sanitizer products may contain traces of a toxic chemical called methanol.
  • The primary risk is associated with oral ingestion.
  • Contact your local poison control center immediately if you think you or someone you know has been exposed to methanol.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expanded its list of hand sanitizers containing methanol and is taking action to prevent their distribution in the United States. First reported on June 19, the list of potentially dangerous products has increased to 100. The majority are manufactured in Mexico.

On July 16, the FDA placed these products on an import alert. This allows the agency to detain a product entering the U.S. without performing a physical examination. The agency also issued a warning letter against one of the manufacturers, Eskbiochem S.A. de C.V., for misleading claims and improper manufacturing practices.

What Are the Risks of These Hand Sanitizers?

If you use these hand sanitizers as instructed—to clean your hands—the potential methanol-related side effects are fairly mild. The repeated FDA alerts are in light of the fact adults and children are ingesting contaminated hand sanitizer products.

Thankfully, methanol actually has pretty poor skin absorption,” William Rushton, MD, the medical director of the Alabama Poison Information Center, tells Verywell. He says that while it is possible to absorb methanol through the skin, it would take repeated full-body exposure to the chemical to yield a toxic dose. Mild skin exposure may result in irritation in the affected area.

Ingesting methanol is much more dangerous.

“[Methanol] is very easily absorbed when ingested and can cause the life-threatening symptoms,” Rushton says.

What This Means For You

If you are unsure about the safety of your hand sanitizer, check the chart provided by the FDA to see the products and brands that are either known to contain methanol, have been recalled, or are made in the same facility as products known to contain the dangerous chemical. Apply hand sanitizer to children yourself, and keep the product out of their reach to avoid accidental ingestion.

The severity of the symptoms largely depends on both the type of exposure and size of the dose ingested.

Thomas Kearney, PharmD, the managing director of the San Francisco Division of the California Poison Control System, tells Verywell that the initial effects of methanol poisoning can appear within a few minutes to a few hours of ingestion, and may be similar to alcohol inebriation:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vision loss
  • Kidney failure
  • Fast or slow heart rate

Kearney says that the symptoms are often mild, but they can worsen if there is a simultaneous inhalation of fumes.

In the period from several hours up to 72 hours after exposure, the symptoms can become life-threatening as toxic metabolites build up in the body.

“These effects include an acidosis, visual disturbances ("snowfield vision"), total blindness, seizures, coma, and death,” Kearney says. 

Treatment for Methanol Poisoning

If you suspect that you or someone you know has been exposed to methanol, the first action you should take is to contact your poison control center.

The treatment involves hospital care with the evaluation of symptoms, laboratory assessment of blood and the use of an antidote, Fomepizole, to block the metabolism if a toxic dose is suspected,” Kearney says. "Hemodialysis may also be required to filter out toxins from the blood."

How Do You Know If Your Hand Sanitizer Is Safe?

According to Rushton, there is no easy way for a person to deternine if their hand sanitizer contains methanol. He says that some of these products are accidentally made with the chemical as manufacturers attempt to develop new products to meet the growing demand.

The best preventative measure is to visit the constantly-updated chart produced by the FDA and avoid those products.

“This is particularly important if there are young children at the home,” Rushton says.

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Article Sources
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  1. Food and Drug Administration. FDA updates on hand sanitizers with methanol. Updated July 31, 2020.

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Import alert 66-78. July 29, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Methanol: Systemic agent. Updated May 12, 2011.