Hand Sanitizers: A Blessing or Curse?

The onset of the Covid pandemic gave rise to the massive production and use of hand sanitizers as a reliable solution to minimize the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Let’s shed some light on the detrimental effects of simple everyday use of hand sanitizers.

Author: Anoosh Fatima

Editor: Jamshed Arslan, PhD

By trusting the chemicals in hand sanitizers, are we sometimes putting ourselves at a risk of greater danger than Covid?

Lao Tzu’s renowned quote, “there is no illusion greater than fear”, has never been as relatable as during the Covid pandemic. The fog of trepidation for this minute microscopic organism embraced almost every other household globally, eliciting the evolutionary fight-or-flight response embedded in us. Everyone went ahead to seek defense strategies for themselves. The use of masks and sanitizers was unanimously agreed upon and recommended by World Health Organization (WHO) as the most effective way to prevent the contraction and spread of the virus. 

Fluids made from varying proportions of hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol were very commonly seen in every household, restaurant, institute, entrance to public places etc., sold under a plethora of brand names. You would probably not be surprised to learn that Purell, a pioneer in the production of hand sanitizers, reported a whopping 568% increase in the sales of hand sanitizers in 2020 alone!

Burn Injuries

While scrolling through random social media posts, we have all come across videos exhibiting people catching fire by mishandling hand sanitizers, and the first thought that comes to mind is “how dumb of them” or “they could have been careful”. Some of us even ignored them, thinking they were staged for attention. Unfortunately, that is not the case as, for example, the Motahari Burns and Reconstruction Center in Iran reported 76 burn injuries from sanitizers and alcohol rubs over the course of two months in 2020.

Alcohol – a major component of hand sanitizers – is a highly flammable liquid and even small proportions of its vapors have the energy to ignite a fire. The accidents reported were due to mundane everyday chores like lighting a flame or turning the knob of a heater. A few incidents were even recorded due to simply lighting a cigarette!

The frequent sanitization has led it to become a subconscious habit and one might not realize they are wearing it before getting into harm’s way. Luckily though, alcohol is also volatile, which means it evaporates into thin air quite readily, keeping the frequency of such incidents low.

Consumption Related Complications

In addition to being flammable, sanitizers are toxic, partially due to their ethanol aspect, but mainly because of the small percentage of hydrogen peroxide in them. Accidental or deliberate consumption of sanitizers has led to fatal consequences in both adults and children. The incidents ranged from thoughtful suicides to babies accidentally ingesting it.

Intestines are responsible for absorbing the food we intake. Hydrogen peroxide coming in contact with intestines results in gastrointestinal tract irritation and in some severe cases might even develop into portal vein embolism. Children have little to no tolerance for alcohol (even adults have a tolerance limit) making them vulnerable to ethanol toxicity, which is the cause of numerous health conditions like ketoacidosis, hypoglycemia, hypothermia, and cardiac arrhythmias. Many governments have launched programs and separate helplines to deal with sanitizer consumption-related calamities.

Environmental Effects

The pernicious effect of hand sanitizers is not limited to human health. Hand sanitizers disrupt planetary health as they increase the carbon footprint by 2%. Although sanitizers used to be considered environment friendly, but now, with the onset of Covid, many inexperienced industries have joined the business of manufacturing sanitizers with the aim of benefiting from increased demands. The increasing numbers of these sprouting industries made it difficult to keep track of the standards and protocols needed to be considered while manufacturing hand sanitizers, especially in the developing countries. Entrepreneurs sought cheaper raw materials like wood alcohol (methanol) in hopes of increasing profits, which adversely affected the environment. After local manufacturers started making sanitizers from wood alcohol, which was harmful for the environment, United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a ‘Do not use’ list where they advised that only those with the green seal are fit to be used.

It can be thus concluded that hand sanitizers do more good than harm, but only if handled prudently. This includes the policing of the production of hand sanitizers as well as careful usage by the citizenry. Always exercise precaution with hand sanitizers. It is advised to keep them out of children’s reach, away from ignitable sources and consider seals and certifications before buying them.

References

  • Dahmardehei, M., Khadem Rezaiyan, M., Safarnejad, F., & Ahmadabadi, A. (2021). An unprecedented increase in burn injuries due to alcohol-based hand sanitizers during the COVID-19 outbreak. Medical Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 35, 107.
  • Mahmood, A., Eqan, M., Pervez, S., Alghamdi, H. A., Tabinda, A. B., Yasar, A., Brindhadevi, K., & Pugazhendhi, A. (2020). COVID-19 and frequent use of hand sanitizers; human health and environmental hazards by exposure pathways. The Science of the Total Environment, 742, 140561.
  • Duane, D. B. (2022). New research underlines the environmental impact of hand-sanitizing practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Environmental Science and Pollution Research.
  • (2021, March). Household Products: Hand sanitizer demand will stay ‘exponentially higher’ than 2019 levels, the CEO of Purell parent says. Tyler Clifford.
  • Kutol, S. (2021, December 30). What Makes Commercial Hand Sanitizers Environmentally Friendly? Kutol. https://www.kutol.com/articles/what-makes-commercial-hand-sanitizers-environmentally-friendly/

BIO :

Anoosh Fatima is a Biomedical engineering student who enjoys writing on topics ranging from science and technology to history and literature and is welcome to learning new things!

Jamshed Arslan

Pharm D (gold medalist); PhD (Neuropharmacology) Skilled in basic and clinical research and scientific writing, with over a decade of teaching and research experience.