Is The Alcohol in Hand Sanitizer Safe? A look at Purell and Germ-X.
Is it possible to get drunk off of hand sanitizer? Well, yes and no.
No, if you use it as intended and only apply it externally to your hands. Yes, if you drink 6 12.7 oz bottles of it as an alcoholic patient in an Australian hospital did, leading to a near-lethal 0.271% blood alcohol content (and new and improved hospital safety measures). (1)
However, whether you squirt it on your hands or down your throat, the use of hand sanitizer may make you at least appear drunk either way.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, to be effective a hand sanitizer must contain at least 60% alcohol. Results of a study in which eleven individuals used a Purell sanitizing solution of 62% ethanol over the course of 3 days while abstaining from alcoholic beverages were found to test positive for alcoholic by-products in their urine. (2) As far as this test was concerned, they had recently ingested alcohol.
Before we start throwing our stockpiles of Germ-X away, we must take into account that the study participants applied sanitizer every five minutes, for ten straight hours, during three consecutive days. (2) Then again, this only adds up to 4 oz each day.
Not to mention, the product tested contained only 2% more alcohol than the minimum concentration found to be effective for killing germs. There are several products on the market with a higher alcohol content (as well as a lower one, so always check labels, as these sanitizers are ineffective!).
Also, in certain situations, individuals may be applying sanitizer constantly, even more frequently than the study participants. Those working in the medical field, for instance, or those who handle food. And for those who work in environments where they must continually undergo drug testing, the effects of hand sanitizer may prove troubling.
As for children, those under the age of 3 should never use marketed sanitizing products with an alcoholic content. (4) One female infant whose umbilical cord stump was covered with ethanol-soaked bandages required hospitalization to combat the absorbed alcohol. (5) Because of the scrapes and bruises of childhood, sanitizing products should always be applied with caution; when skin is compromised so is its ability to protect against foreign contaminants of any kind, including alcohol (6).
However, for Rep. Vito Fossella, convicted of drunken driving charges and who later claimed that the effects of Purell sanitizer manipulated his road-side sobriety test, he chose the wrong scapegoat.
An Australian test of twenty health care employees applying a sanitizing product 8% higher in alcohol than Purell, thirty times an hour showed only minimal elevations in breath levels of ethanol; none above the legal drinking limit. (3) And, these levels quickly returned to zero only minutes following application. (3) Unlike urine analysis, breathalyzers are not capable of the same sanitizer-induced alcohol readings.
So, although a product containing 62% alcohol (the equivalent of a 120 proof bottle of rum) may have undesireable effects if used every couple minutes of every hour of every day, most individuals using it sparingly, and externally, should have nothing to fear. Those who use it more frequently and in a higher concentration, on the other hand, should keep this research in mind.
1.“Patient gets drunk on sanitizer in Austalian Hospital” The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8585825/Patient-gets-drunk-on-sanitiser-in-Australian-hospital.html
2.“Hand sanitizer can lead to positive alcohol test” by Rachael Rettner. MSNBC. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43159574/ns/health-health_care/t/hand-sanitizer-can-lead-positive-alcohol-test/
3.“The Purell Defense: Can hand sanitizers really affect your blood-alcohol level?” by Nina Rastogi. Slate. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2008/10/the_purell_defense.html
4.“Is it ok to use a non-alcohol hand sanitizer on children?” by Ivy Morris. LiveStrong.com. http://www.livestrong.com/article/497413-is-it-ok-to-use-non-alcohol-hand-sanitizer-on-children/
5. "Percutaneous ethyl alcohol intoxication in a one-month-old infant." Dalt LD, et al. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1788121
6. "Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity" by Dirk M Lachenmeier. Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology. http://www.occup-med.com/content/3/1/26