Washing hands with soap and clean water for at least 20 seconds is the best way for children to get rid of germs, including COVID-19. If soap and water are not available, they can use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
However, swallowing just a tiny amount of hand sanitizer can cause poisoning in children. Many hand sanitizers are made with alcohol or rubbing alcohol (ethanol, ethyl alcohol, or isopropanol, isopropyl alcohol). Alcohol poisoning symptoms include sleepiness, low blood sugar, seizures and coma, and it can be fatal.
Children and adults also have been poisoned after using hand sanitizer that contained methanol (also called wood alcohol, methyl alcohol, or methylated spirits). It should not be used in hand sanitizer, and these products were recently recalled. Methanol is toxic if swallowed or after repeated use on skin. It may cause nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system, or death.
The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to keep hand sanitizers out of children’s reach. Don’t forget about travel-size bottles of sanitizer in purses, diaper bags, backpacks and cars. Parents and caregivers also should supervise children ages 5 and younger when they use hand sanitizer.
Hand sanitizer & COVID-19
As families began buying more hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Poison Data System started getting more reports of unintentional exposures in children. In the first half of 2020, there have been 46% more reported cases about hand sanitizer than during the same time last year. Many reports were about children ages 5 years and younger.
Health experts recommend using hand sanitizer that is 60% to 95% alcohol to kill the virus that causes COVID-19. Drinking alcohol typically has 5% to 40% alcohol.
Check the label
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began letting companies that do not normally produce hand sanitizer make and sell it during the COVID-19 pandemic. When buying hand sanitizer, parents should make sure it has a label that lists the ingredients, warnings and precautions.
To reduce the risk of injury from children drinking hand sanitizers, producers should add ingredients to make them taste bitter. This important step helps prevent children from eating the product. However, the FDA has been alerted that some young people have tried drinking hand sanitizers from distilleries that have not taken the step to make them taste bad.
To help make sure the sanitizer’s taste will not appeal to children, look for the word “denatured” on the bottle. You can also check for bitter ingredients such as denatonium benzoate (Bitrex); sucrose octaacetate; or butanol (also called tert-butyl alcohol).
Some products are made with isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol). Be especially careful with these sanitizers around children, since they can be more toxic than those made with ethanol or ethyl alcohol.
A word about homemade hand sanitizers
With some shortages of hand sanitizers during the COVID-19 crisis, it may be tempting to make your own hand sanitizer. However, this may not be the best option. The FDA warns that if made incorrectly, hand sanitizer may not work. There have also been reports of skin burns from homemade hand sanitizer.
Disposing of recalled products
Do not flush or pour recalled hand sanitizers down the drain. These products should be disposed of in hazardous waste containers, if possible. If unsure, check with your local waste management and recycling center.
Call 911 right away if your child has collapsed, is having a seizure, is having a hard time breathing, or if they can’t wake up after using or swallowing hand sanitizer products. If you have questions about hand sanitizer product safety, call your regional poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 or visit WebPoisonControl.
Source: AAP Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention (Copyright © 2020). The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.