Buyer beware: That’s what we’re always told no matter what we purchase, but it’s even more important when our health is at stake. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many companies began producing hand sanitizers for use when soap and water isn’t available or convenient. However, some companies are taking advantage of the increasing demand and using ingredients that can cause harm. The Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings to consumers, urging them to read labels and avoid certain products.

In early July, the FDA had to warn consumers about hand sanitizers that contained methanol (wood alcohol), which can be absorbed through the skin. Methanol can cause skin irritation but as it is absorbed into the body, it can also cause other effects, like visual disturbances. If swallowed, it can cause blindness, even death.

On August 12, the FDA sent out a statement about products produced by Harmonic Nature S de RL de MI, in Mexico, which contain the ingredient 1-propanol. “Young children who accidentally ingest these products and adolescents and adults who drink these products as an alcohol (ethanol) substitute are most at risk. Ingesting 1-propanol can cause central nervous system (CNS) depression, which can result in death. Symptoms of 1-propanol exposure can include confusion, decreased consciousness, and slowed pulse and breathing.”

Sanitizers may have not enough ethyl alcohol

Another reason to read labels is to ensure sanitizers not only contain the right ingredients, but they have the right percentage of ethyl alcohol to be effective. Using ineffective products may lead the user to believe that they have adequately cleaned their hands when this may not be the case, and they may spread the virus. On July 31, the FDA issued a warning about hand sanitizers that did not have enough ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol) or isopropyl alcohol to be effective. Hand sanitizers must contain at least 60 percent ethanol: “Many studies have found that sanitizers with an alcohol concentration between 60–95% are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or non-alcohol-based hand sanitizers.”

As hand sanitizers may be difficult to find in stores, some people are choosing to try making it at home. The FDA does not recommend this approach because if the sanitizer is not made correctly, it could result in either it not being strong enough or it may be too strong and cause burns.

If you’re concerned about the hand sanitizer you have purchased, you can use the FDA searchable base to see if it’s listed there.