A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: When hand sanitizer may not be safe — what you should know about using it appropriately

Public health officials have been telling us over the past few months that the best ways to avoid catching the coronavirus are to wash your hands with soap and water or, when that’s not an option, rub them with hand sanitizer.

As a result, the demand and use of hand sanitizers have dramatically increased so much so that there is a current shortage across the US.

In response to that shortage, the Food and Drug Administration made it easier for companies that don’t typically manufacture hand sanitizer to start making it.

According to a recent article in the consumer Report alcohol distillers responded to that need with an estimated 700 of them shifting some production to hand sanitizer, trade groups say. That makes sense because alcohol is the main ingredient of hand sanitizer and, say, gin or vodka.

With everyone trying to keep their hands as clean as possible during this COVID-19 pandemic, many are unaware of the fire risks associated with using alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Yes, as a safety and risk management professional when the norm begins to shift, my first instinct is to ask the questions, and with the increase in usage of a known flammable liquid will it multiply the number of potential burn victims?

We all know that hand sanitizers can remove germs from your hands when you use these products as they are intended to be used, but the question is how safe is hand sanitizer?

Most hand sanitizer products contain a high volume of alcohol, which is the reason for hand sanitizer fire hazard concerns. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are classified as Class I Flammable Liquid substances, which means they have a flashpoint of less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer contains ethyl alcohol, which readily evaporates at room temperature into an ignitable vapor and is therefore considered a flammable liquid.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com

A small amount of sanitizer, if ignited, can burn very hot very quickly, which can lead to personal injury or property damage. To avoid a fire hazard, never use an alcohol-based sanitizer near a heat source or an open flame.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer should not be stored in temperatures higher than 73 degrees Fahrenheit/22 degrees Celsius or it could become a fire hazard.

When an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel can catch fire, it will produce a translucent blue flame. This is due to the flammable alcohol in the gel. Some hand sanitizer gels may not produce this effect due to a high concentration of water or moisturizing agents.

The truth of the matter is that the fire risks largely disappear when the sanitizer is applied properly and given time to dry. So the immediate danger occurs the moment you apply alcohol-based hand sanitizer and if you are near an ignition source such as a flame you can sustain severe burns.

In an effort to determine if the number of burn injuries from using alcohol-based hand sanitizer from the increase in exposure I took to the internet and searched for recent incidents. I did find a handful of incidents but could not uncover if a new trend had started to develop.

However, a good friend of mine, Steven Jones with the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recently sent me the following safety warning from an incident that recently occurred to a Gassco (Siemens) employee.

The employee used alcohol-based hand sanitizer as recommended during the coronavirus pandemic. The person touched a metal surface before the liquid had evaporated. Due to the static electricity, the vapor from the hand sanitizer ignited with an almost invisible flame on both hands. The person managed to get to a since to extinguish the flames, but he suffered first and second-degree burns.

No, don’t ingest hand sanitizer.

To reduce this risk, it is advised that if given the option, you should always wash your hands with soap and water versus using hand sanitizer. It’s not only safer but if done correctly for at least twenty seconds it is much more effective in controlling COVID-19/.

If you apply hand sanitizer here are some helpful safety tips to keep you safe:

• Wait at least a minute for the sanitizer to dry on your hands and then wave your hands to remove any vapors that may be floating around.
• Remember that alcohol-base hand sanitizer is flammable and should be handled with caution.
• Reduce nearby ignition sources when you apply hand sanitizer.
• Ensures storage of flammable liquids in a safe manner and maintain methods for quick exits in case of fire.
• Avoid storing large quantities of Hand sanitizer and if it can’t be avoided, then store in accordance to NFPA guidelines.
• Maintain hand sanitizer in original container with original label to be able to identify.
• Do not drink hand sanitizer. This is particularly important for young children, especially toddlers, who may be attracted by the pleasant smell or brightly colored bottles of hand sanitizer. Drinking even a small amount of hand sanitizer can cause alcohol poisoning in children. (However, there is no need to be concerned if your children eat with or lick their hands after using hand sanitizer.) During this coronavirus pandemic, poison control centers have had an increase in calls about accidental ingestion of hand sanitizer, so it is important that adults monitor young children’s use.
• Do not allow pets to swallow hand sanitizer. If you think your pet has eaten something potentially dangerous, call your veterinarian or a pet poison control center right away.

Be Safe My Friends

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One Comment

  1. Renee says:

    Can you tell me if hand sanitizers containing ethyl alcohol can catch on fire Just from being in a hot car, without being near a flame?


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