NEWS

FDA: Mexican-Made Hand Sanitizers on Import Alert Due to Methanol Risks

Man wearing a mask puts on hand sanitizer.

Luiz Alvarez / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • On January 26, the Food and Drug Administration placed all alcohol-based hand sanitizers originating in Mexico on an import alert.
  • Methanol is dangerous if ingested.
  • You can verify the safety of your hand sanitizer using the FDA's website.

If you developed a zeal for hand sanitizer in the last year, you're certainly not alone. As most of us have taken extra steps to increase our hygiene routine, hand sanitizer has become an item we can't leave our homes without. But not all sanitizers are created equal.

Since June of 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned consumers of sanitizers originating from Mexico that may be contaminated with methanol, commonly known as wood alcohol.

Building upon prior alerts, on January 26, the FDA placed all alcohol-based hand sanitizers originating in Mexico on an import alert.

There is ample cause for concern. The FDA states that as much as 84% of the samples tested by the agency showed noncompliance with FDA standards, including some containing toxic ingredients that were not included in the labels' ingredient lists.

What This Means For You

Methanol-tainted hand sanitizers can be dangerous if ingested and irritating if applied to open wounds on the skin. You can check your own hand sanitizers by looking at the FDA recall list. Another way to ensure safety is to buy from a local maker. Many liquor brands have pivoted to producing hand sanitizer as well. You can find a list of American distillers offering hand sanitizers here.

FDA Cracks Down

This import alert means that all hand sanitizers originating in Mexico will be subject to heightened scrutiny and the FDA may detain shipments. According to the FDA, this is the first country-wide product alert of this kind.

While methanol contamination is one of the top safety priorities, the FDA is also concerned with improper labeling and claims. Some of these labels claim products are FDA-approved or misstate the ethanol content, leading to sanitizers that do not live up to their germ-killing claims.

The FDA says that it is working with the Mexican government to stop products with dangerous ingredients from coming into the market, but encourages consumers to check their products to make sure they are not on recall lists.

Risks of Methanol

According to Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT, the co-medical director of the National Capital Poison Center, products containing methanol can have a range of severe symptoms, including permanent blindness and death, but only when ingested.

Methanol

Methanol is known by many names such as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol. This chemical is mostly used as an industrial chemical in inks, adhesives, fuel, and antifreeze. It is not safe for human consumption.

All topical hand sanitizers can be an irritant to the skin, she tells Verywell via email.

"Methanol is fortunately not absorbed well through intact skin, so we don't expect to see significant adverse events from the use of methanol-containing hand sanitizers on normal skin," Johnson-Arbor says. "However, if a person has cuts or open wounds on the skin and applies methanol-containing hand sanitizer to it, there is a possibility for increased absorption through the broken skin. In this case, please call poison control immediately for medical advice."

Check Your Hand Sanitizers

Although most hand sanitizers are not labeled with their point of origin, Jeremy Kahn, MA, press officer for the FDA, tells Verywell via email that there are ways to check if your hand sanitizer may be tainted.

"Visit the FDA's website," Kahn says. "Using the information on the label, search via product or brand name, manufacturer (this may not be included on the label), the distributor, or the National Drug Code number. If the manufacturer isn't listed on the label, contact the distributor to find out who manufactured the product."

If the distributor refuses to clarify who made the product, the FDA recommends you do not use the product.

If the hand sanitizer isn't safe, Johnson-Arbor says you can contact the retailer and see if they will give you a refund for the product. If they won't, she recommends contacting your local hazardous waste facility for instructions on how to safely use it. She cautions against pouring chemicals like methanol down household drains. Most importantly, don't leave any products containing methanol in reach of children, pets, or individuals likely to drink them.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA takes action to place all alcohol-based hand sanitizers from Mexico on import alert to help prevent entry of violative and potentially dangerous products into U.S., protect U.S. consumers. Updated January 26, 2021.