I’ve been searching for hand sanitizer and finally found a large bottle at a nearby store. The problem is, when I got home, I found out that it has methanol alcohol in it. Is it safe to use, and is it effective against COVID-19?
No, it’s not safe to use, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In a series of advisories posted over the past several days, the FDA has issued warnings about several hand sanitizers that contain methanol alcohol, because methanol can cause serious side effects when absorbed through the skin and can cause blindness or death when swallowed.
In fact, the FDA has published a list of hand sanitizers that it is advising consumers not to use because of potential methanol contamination. The federal agency said consumers should “check your hand sanitizer products to see if they are on this list and dispose of them immediately if they are.”
“Most hand sanitizers found to contain methanol do not list it as an ingredient on the label since it is not an acceptable ingredient in the product,” the FDA said in a written statement. “It’s important to check the FDA’s list to see if the company or product is included.”
The FDA said that some of the hand sanitizers on its published list have labels that say the product contains ethanol—also known as ethyl alcohol—but that have instead tested positive for methanol contamination.
Methanol, which is also known as wood alcohol, is not an acceptable active ingredient for hand sanitizers and must not be used due to its toxic effects, the FDA said.
“Consumers who have been exposed to hand sanitizer containing methanol and are experiencing symptoms should seek immediate treatment for potential reversal of toxic effects of methanol poisoning,” the federal agency said.
Substantial methanol exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system, or death, the FDA said.
“Hand sanitizers should contain 60% or more alcohol to be effective against coronavirus,” said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
“Also, your hands have to already be visibly clean in order for the hand sanitizer to be effective in killing germs, bacteria, and viruses,” she said. “Sanitizer kills on contact, but if your hands are already dirty, the sanitizer will not be effective against bacteria because it’s consumed by the organic matter (or dirt) as soon as it makes contact.”
“That prevents the sanitizer from even making contact with the bacteria you are trying to kill.”
Ilic said it’s best to wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds, but if you don’t have access to soap and water, you can use a hand sanitizer that contains 60% or more alcohol to clean your hands and then reuse it a second time right away to ensure your hands have been sanitized.
Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, state specialist in food safety for OSU Extension.