Like most websites, we use cookies and other similar technologies for a number of reasons, such as keeping our website reliable and secure, personalizing content, providing social media features and to better understand how our site is used. By using our site, you are agreeing to our use of these tools. Learn More

Your Location is set to:

Published on November 16, 2015

Surprising danger lurking right inside your purseSurprising danger lurking right inside your purse

Hand sanitizers are an important part of personal hygiene at this time of the year, but they pose a hidden danger to teens looking to get drunk and children who may be enticed by the sweet smell of some of the brands.

Since 2010, poison control centers have seen a 400 percent increase in calls related to children under 12. Some of these children became dangerously drunk on the high alcohol content in the products and had to be hospitalized.

Children sick from ingesting hand sanitizing solution are showing up in emergency rooms across the country, said John Mendelsohn, MD, an emergency room physician and toxicology expert at Falmouth Hospital.

“If you go into the emergency medicine literature, it’s rife with stories about people drinking hand sanitizers and getting sick or drunk –both children and adults,” he said.

Dr. Mendelsohn said the incidence of this problem and the motivation behind it can be broken into three age groups:

  • Younger children who accidentally ingest it
  • Older kids and teenagers who are drinking it to get a buzz
  • Hard-core alcoholics who use it in place of other alcoholic drinks.

Most hand sanitizers average between 60 percent and 65 percent ethyl alcohol. The amount of alcohol it takes for a person to get dangerously drunk depends on weight, Dr. Mendelsohn said.

A hand sanitizer that is 65 percent alcohol would be 130-proof – far higher than the 80-proof averages of most liquors like vodka. You would only have to drink two-thirds the amount of hand sanitizer to get the same amount of alcohol as vodka.

The figures are even scarier for small children, who could be at risk from alcohol poisoning after ingesting just a couple of mouthfuls of hand sanitizer. If you compare a 22- to 30-pound toddler with a 187- to 198-pound adult man, the same dose of alcohol will make the toddler six times more intoxicated than the adult male.

Symptoms of hand sanitizer poisoning in children include:

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Blue tinged or pale skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Low blood sugar.

Police stations often remove hand sanitizer from cells, so that inmates who are addicted to alcohol don’t use them, Dr. Mendelsohn said. Family members should be alert to that as well, if they have a loved one struggling with an alcohol problem.

Mouthwash is another dangerous substance that can be abused, he said. A bottle of Listerine is 21 percent alcohol, or more than 40 proof.

“A 1.5 liter bottle of Listerine has as much alcohol as a pint and a half of whiskey,” he said. “So if you’re 16 and you can’t go into the liquor store to buy alcohol, you can certainly go to Stop and Shop and get some Listerine.”

Other dangerous substances finding their way into the hands of teenagers: cold medicines like Coricidan, inhaling spray paint, and ingesting jimson weed.

“There are legions of stories about these things,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. “The point is there are ways for people to access psychoactive substances that are totally legal. Parents need to be educated and have conversations with their teenagers about getting high and experimenting.

“When you experiment, by definition you are going into a land of the unknown and you have to be very careful.”