Teens  |  Toddler and Preschool  |  Infants  |  Alcohol  |  Cosmetics and personal care products

Hand Sanitizer: What's the Real Story?

The Bottom Line

A lick of hand sanitizer won't hurt a child or anyone else. Drinking it can cause alcohol poisoning, which can cause low blood sugar, coma, and seizures – though this is not common.

The Full Story

Recently, the internet was buzzing with reports of a child who became intoxicated after "licking" some hand sanitizer. Could this be true?

A lick of hand sanitizer will not be fatal to a child or anyone else. It does contain alcohol and so should be stored, like other potential poisons, out of sight and out of reach. Should a child actually drink some, call to Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 immediately.

Hand sanitizer is not more dangerous than other sources of alcohol in a child's environment. You wouldn't let a child have easy access to beer, wine, liquor, or rubbing alcohol. Also, a child should not have access to mouthwash, facial toner, or hair tonics that contain alcohol.

There are two immediate problems with children and alcohol. The first is that it can lower their blood sugar. In extreme, untreated situations, that can lead to coma and seizures. That's why the first treatment instruction after a child drinks alcohol, from any source, is to give something sweet to drink. Then, the poison specialists will calculate the amount of alcohol swallowed compared to the child's body weight. If it's really too much, the child will be sent to the emergency room so that breathing problems won't occur.

The second problem is that it can make kids drunk. That doesn't just mean woozy; it means slow heart rate and breathing.

BUT, a lick of hand sanitizer will not do this. A child would need to drink from the bottle and would probably quickly vomit, because alcohol and soap irritate the stomach. A child who drank from the bottle and didn't vomit right away could become seriously ill.

So, the bottom line with hand sanitizer: it should be kept out of reach. A lick won't hurt or kill anyone, even a child. If a child does get into some hand sanitizer (or anything else), do the prudent thing and use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. You'll get good advice and can stop worrying about "what if".

Rose Ann Gould Soloway, RN, BSN, MSEd, DABAT emerita
Clinical Toxicologist


For More Information

A science-based look at when to use hand sanitizers (CDC)


References

Engel JS, Spiller HA. Acute ethanol poisoning in a 4-year-old as a result of ethanol-based hand-sanitizer ingestion. Pediatr Emer Care. 2010;26:508-509.

Miller M, Borys D, Morgan D. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and unintended pediatric exposures: a retrospective review. Clinical Pediatrics. 2009;48(4):429-431.

Rayar P, Ratnapalan S. Pediatric ingestions of household products containing ethanol: a review. Clinical Pediatrics. 2013;52(3):203–209.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Supervise young children when they use hand sanitizer.
  • Between uses, keep it out of sight and reach of young children.

This Really Happened

Case 1: A 3-year-old girl had the 16-oz pump dispenser bottle of hand sanitizer containing 68% alcohol in her hands. She had squirted it on her hands, face, clothing and hair. Her mom called Poison Control, concerned that she may have swallowed some. The child didn't remove the pump attachment and had only about a minute to swallow anything. She appeared fine. Poison Control reviewed the concerns with alcohol ingestion in small children but reassured her mom that the small amount she may have swallowed would not poison her. A bath, sweet fluids and a snack were recommended. Two hours later in a follow-up call to the home by Poison Control, her mom reported that she had followed Poison Control's advice and the child was fine.

Case 2: A 2-year-old boy tasted what his mom estimated was a dime-size amount of hand sanitizer containing 62% alcohol one evening. He squeezed some on his hands and then licked them. His mom called Poison Control and was advised to keep him awake for an hour and give sweet fluids and a snack, and to watch for symptoms of inebriation (acting drunk), though no symptoms were expected with this amount. In a follow-up call from Poison Control to his mom an hour later, his mom reported he was a little sleepy, but it was past his bedtime. He had had some juice and appeared his normal self.