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Will hand sanitizers blow up on your hands?

Cold and flu season is well upon us and those of us with no interest in sharing others germs may well be relying heavily on hand sanitizers at this time of year.

But are they safe? A couple of emails circulating suggest they’re not.

In one, a rather gory picture of burned hands says that the unfortunate owner of the hands used a hand sanitizer at work, then immediately went outdoors to smoke a cigarette. When he attempted to protect the flame from his lighter with his hand, the gel on his skin caught fire.

True? 

Well, no. 

The picture included in the email is actually a picture of burns suffered by an electrician at the Idaho National Lab. He was installing lighting fixtures, and a tool he was using came into contact with a live wire.

So the picture was false, but can you catch your hands on fire after using a hand-sanitizing gel?

The urban legends website at Snopes says that “hand sanitizers are typically alcohol-based gels containing isopropanol and/or ethyl alcohol, both of which are flammable.” They state they conducted their own experiments and found that even a small amount of the gel was readily flammable, though “the resulting fire burned relatively cool and was easily extinguished.”

In contrast, a 1998 study by the Federal Aviation Administration found an ethanol-based hand cleaner was “often difficult to ignite,” though they also found any resulting fire relatively easy to put out.

No one, however, conducted tests whereby the gel on someone’s hand was lit on fire in order to measure how easily it ignited, or how easily it was extinguished. (Or even how much it hurt.) Understandable, and this information should probably carry that well-known proviso, “don’t try this at home!”

If you want to make sure you’re completely safe, any trace of hand sanitizer should probably be removed from your hands before you place your hands near flame.

That handy hand-sanitizer is also implicated in another circulating email. This one tells of a small child who ingested just a small amount of the sanitizer, and ended up with alcohol poisoning.

The email, which happens to be a true story for a change, says that doctors warned the child’s parents that even three “squirts” of ingested hand sanitizer for child as small as theirs (a two-year-old) could result in a blood alcohol level of .10.

The point, of course, is that hand sanitizers are similar to other substances found in most households in that they contain ingredients that are potentially toxic to young children. Remember Mr. Yuk? Hand sanitizers need a big Mr. Yuk sticker right on the front.

Given these two emails, you might want to toss your hand-sanitizer right into the nearest trash receptacle, but consider this before you do. In a 2005 study by Children’s Hospital, they discovered that those who use hand-sanitizer gels experienced a 59 percent reduction in gastrointestinal illness, and that increased use of hand sanitizers corresponded with a decreased spread of contagions.

A study by James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center of the efficacy of hand sanitizers showed that a 62 percent alcohol concentration was necessary in order to be an effective anti-bacterial.

By the way, the CDC estimates their are approximately 36,000 deaths each year caused by flu and/or pneumonia.

All this information together would seem to suggest that hand sanitizers have a place in a family’s plan for wellness. Just treat it as you would any other medicine - don’t make it readily available to small children, and exercise some minor precautions.

And whenever you have questions about an email you’ve received, take time to check it out. Visit Snopes at www.snopes.com.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

health, hand sanitizers

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