Some people drink hand sanitizer to get a buzz or get drunk. Kids have been known to lick hand sanitizer off their hands, resulting in a panicked call to Poison Control. How dangerous is it to drink hand sanitizer? What are the risks? What do you do if a child tastes it? Here’s what you need to know.
The two main reasons it’s dangerous to drink hand sanitizer are because it contains a high concentration of alcohol and may contain a poisonous type of alcohol or other toxic ingredients. Children who lick ethanol-based alcohol off their hands generally recover, but parents should consult Poison Control.
How People Drink Hand Sanitizer
Drinking hand sanitizer goes by special names, like “hand sanitrippin’,” “getting hand sanitized,” “getting a hand sanity fix,” and “getting drunk on Mr. Clean’s tears.” People may have been drinking hand sanitizer since it came on the market, but it didn’t become a “thing” until the media reported prison inmates using it to get intoxicated back in 2007. While some people ingest the gel, others craft minty cocktails by mixing mouthwash and hand sanitizer or use salt to liquefy the gel. Others distill the alcohol from hand sanitizer to purify it.
Chemical Composition of Hand Sanitizer
There are multiple types of hand sanitizer. Some are based on antiseptics, such as chlorhexidine or benzalkonium chloride. Two types of alcohol are used in alcohol-based hand sanitizers. The most common type contains between 60% and 95% ethanol (ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol). This type of hand sanitizer can get you buzzed or drunk, but it’s the equivalent to 120-proof liquor. In contrast, vodka is 80-proof. Usually this ingredient is listed as “denatured alcohol,” which means it contains unspecified ingredients that make it taste too awful to drink. But, some denaturing agents are poisonous. For example, benzene and arsenic were used to denature alcohol during Prohibition. The other type of alcohol-based hand sanitizer contains isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol or rubbing alcohol). This kind of alcohol is toxic and can cause brain damage, blindness, kidney damage, and liver damage. However, the initial effects of drinking isopropyl alcohol are much like those of drinking ethanol: intoxication, slurred speech, dizziness, and blurred vision.
The inactive ingredients may include water, benzophenone-4, carbomer, fragrance, isopropyl myristate, glycerin, propylene glycol, and tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E). “Fragrance” is the most potentially toxic ingredient, as many scents are synthetic compounds based on petrochemicals.
Hand Sanitizer and Kids
Make sure children use the ethanol-based hand sanitizer and not the type made from isopropyl alcohol or other ingredients. The product should be kept out of reach of young children. If a child licks hand sanitizer, an adult should call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 immediately. Poison Control states children (or adults) won’t die from a simple lick of hand sanitizer, but drinking it is cause for concern for two reasons. First, it lowers blood sugar, which can lead to coma and seizures if left untreated. The usual advice given when a child drinks alcohol is to give them something sweet. The second issue is that alcohol slows heart rate and breathing. This is a greater concern for children than for adults because of their lower body bass. If a person drinks too much alcohol for their body weight (in any form), it’s a medical emergency.
Can You Drink It?
Can a person drink hand sanitizer and get a buzz or drunk? Definitely! But, the bottom line is it’s a bad idea. Even if the active ingredient is ethyl alcohol or ethanol, it’s denatured precisely to deter people from drinking it. Some denaturants are toxic. It’s possible to purify the alcohol from hand sanitizer by distillation, but some of the other ingredients have boiling points similar to alcohol, so the resulting product will likely remain contaminated. If someone decides to go ahead and drink the alcohol anyway, there’s a serious risk of alcohol poisoning/overdose. The alcohol content is so high that it’s easy to overdose even before feeling tipsy.
- BBC News (September 24, 2009). “Prisoner ‘drunk on swine flu gel.” UK.
- Doyon, S.; Welsh, C. (February 1, 2007) “Intoxication of a Prison Inmate with an Ethyl Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer.” New England Journal of Medicine. 356:529-530. doi:10.1056/NEJMc063110
- Halloa Enterprise Co., Ltd. “Isopropyl Alcohol Material Safety Data Sheet.” Farnell, Taiwan.
- Miller M, Borys D, Morgan D. (2009). “Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and unintended pediatric exposures: a retrospective review.” Clinical Pediatrics. 48(4):429-431.
- Spectrum Chemical (September 11, 2006). “Material Safety Data Sheet.” Section 1. Chemical Product and Company Identification.