I’ve noticed that the FDA has been flagging hand sanitizers as toxic. Why is that?

Washing your hands with soap and water is a best practice for protecting yourself and others against infectious diseases, like COVID-19; to supplement hand-washing, and when you’re out and about, it is a good idea to also use hand sanitizer to kill germs and reduce the risk of infection. 

Not all hand sanitizers are created equally, however, and not all of them meet the best quality standards. In the past few weeks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings about dangerous methanol contamination in hand-sanitizer products; the FDA’s list started with 9 products and has since grown to more than 100 products. 

Methanol (also referred to as methyl alcohol) is poisonous and exposure to it is linked to many adverse health outcomes, including nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system, and even death. The FDA has flagged hand sanitizers containing as much as 81% methanol. Unfortunately, it can be hard to identify products that contain methanol, since the substance is often not listed on product packaging. 

The FDA is “strongly urging” and “recommending” manufacturers to recall these dangerous products, but manufacturers are not legally bound to do so. Worse, some products are marketed as being “clean” or “natural,” but the FDA does not have an official meaning for these terms. So, even products that contain harmful ingredients can be deceptively labeled as safe, while they are anything but.

If a manufacturer chooses to keep its products on the market, the burden falls on consumers to avoid products contaminated with methanol or other harmful substances. Therefore, it is important to be a well-informed consumer about the ways manufacturers can fraudulently misrepresent their products. And, the FDA’s list of methanol-contaminated hand sanitizers has been increasing weekly, making it hard for even the most vigilant consumers to keep track of which ones to avoid.

What should you look for to find out if a product is safe? First, there are no FDA-approved hand sanitizers, so you know right away that any hand sanitizer marketing itself that way is using fraudulent marketing tactics. Second, avoid products that contain fragrances. Manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients that comprise fragrances, so it’s impossible to find out those ingredients. Third, you can look up ingredient information that a manufacturer has provided to the FDA by checking the name in the National Drug Code (NDC) directory, found here. Fourth, the FDA recommends using products with at least 60% alcohol (also called ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol, which is the active ingredient in hand sanitizer. 


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