Kids get dirty and mothers hate germs. Mix the two together, and it’s easy to understand the popularity of on-the-go hand sanitizers, perfect for de-germing kids after they picked up that dead squirrel at the park when you weren’t looking. I know of many parents who treat these antimicrobial hand gels like a Godsend of modern technology, and wouldn’t be caught without a bottle on hand. Yet it turns out that what’s good for keeping germs off children’s hands is not so good for their tummies, and poison control centers have seen a spike in alcohol poisoning cases among children in recent years as a result of hand sanitizers.
In 2006, there were 11,914 known cases of children under age six ingesting hand sanitizer, with about 500 of those cases resulting in minor intoxication. An additional 20 cases resulted in moderate toxicity. Then in 2007, an Internet story went viral about a 4-year-old Oklahoma girl being rushed to the emergency room with signs of alcohol poisoning, after she apparently licked hand sanitizer off her skin.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), most hand gels/hand sanitizers contain around 62% ethanol. So children who either lick the gel or otherwise consume it can get alcohol poisoning or become intoxicated. The AAPCC says that a child weighing 66 pounds (your average 6-8 year old) who consumed about one ounce of hand sanitizer would reach a blood-alcohol concentration level of 0.08 percent, the legal limit for drunk driving in many states.
Purell, the largest producer of hand sanitizer, notes that their gel contains an additive that makes it taste bitter in the hopes of discouraging kids from ingesting it. Yet many hand sanitizers are also sweetly scented, and as any parent knows, if something smells good to a child, the next step is usually to taste it. Even the bitter taste may not be enough to prevent a child from licking their hands after using it.
If your child has managed to ingest hand sanitizer or licked their hands after you applied it, don’t panic. We know of no deaths from hand sanitizers, and most cases will result only in minor intoxication. A lick of the gel will not increase a child’s blood-alcohol level markedly, and in the grand scheme of things, hand-sanitizers are a relatively minor safety risk. You should, however, call poison control and watch your child for signs of intoxication if you have reason to suspect that they’ve consumed a portion of a bottle of hand gel.
Though not deadly, you should try to keep children from licking their hands after applying it,. While such errant licking may not pose any immediate safety risks, getting a little buzzed from licking a small amount of alcohol probably isn’t too healthy for them when you multiply this potential effect over thousands of uses. This also presents a good opportunity to reinforce other poisoning prevention tips, by reminding children that not everything which smells good is good for their tummies, and that not everything which is safe on their skin is safe in their mouth. Some things that are poisonous to eat may smell good or look good from the outside. That is why they should always check with an adult before putting anything new in their mouth.