Drinking Hand Sanitizer Growing Trend Not Confined to Teens

Posted on January 5th, 2016

More and more people are getting drunk on hand sanitizer, using the cleaning product as a cheap source of alcohol. The tactic is especially popular among prison inmates, alcoholics and teens. While the trend might seem absurd at first, the alcohol content of hand sanitizer is pretty high, and, of course, drinking it carries all the same risks as the consumption of any other form of alcohol.

Hand Sanitizer: A Potent Source of Alcohol

The rationale behind drinking hand sanitizer is that it’s affordable and a potent source of alcohol, with most products containing around 62 percent alcohol, but some as high as 85 percent. A 62-percent alcohol hand sanitizer equates to over 120 proof, substantially more than the common 80 proof for a bottle of hard liquor like vodka, gin or rum. This means that it’s a much stronger drink than most shots you can buy in a bar, and even the small bottles it’s ordinarily sold in can contain four shots of high-strength alcohol, easily enough to get a teen or adult drunk.

Obviously alcohol isn’t the only ingredient in these hand sanitizers. There are methods for extracting the pure alcohol from the products available online, but many don’t bother with the process and drink the sanitizer as it comes. The problem is in its apparent harmlessness: you wouldn’t think anything of seeing a schoolkid with hand sanitizer in his backpack, and you probably wouldn’t worry about selling a bottle to a teen. Couple this with the relatively low price and the issues become obvious: it’s a way for people without much money and people who aren’t supposed to drink alcohol to do so secretly.

Teens, Adults Abusing Hand Sanitizer

Much of the concern about drinking hand sanitizer is about its use by teens. In California, there have been over 2,600 cases of alcohol poisoning related to hand sanitizer since 2010, and the problem is spreading across the nation. Previously, there has been concern about accidental ingestion of hand sanitizer by younger children, but due to the small amounts accidentally consumed, the risk wasn’t particularly severe. For the teens drinking the sanitizer on purpose, though, there is a much bigger danger of alcohol poisoning, and this is the reason for the recent spike in cases.

However, the problem isn’t limited to teens. A case report in the New England Journal of Medicine describes one instance of a 49-year-old jail inmate from Maryland drinking hand sanitizer from a gallon jug of the stuff. He had to be taken for medical treatment but made a full recovery. Another case in the same report was a 43-year-old alcoholic who was sent to the hospital for chest pain, but left after receiving treatment extremely drunk. They brought him back in for testing, and during this period he was spotted in the bathroom drinking from the sanitizer dispenser. When asked why he was drinking it, he pointed to “63% isopropyl alcohol” on the ingredient list, pointing out that it’s stronger than vodka. Other similar cases have been reported in alcoholics, some of whom claim to have learned about it in rehab.

Risks of Drinking Hand Sanitizer

It should go without saying that drinking hand sanitizer is not a good idea: the risks of alcohol are one thing—and the alcohol in sanitizer has exactly the same risks—but you’re also consuming numerous other chemicals not intended for ingestion. The fact that the alcohol content in hand sanitizer is so high makes alcohol poisoning a greater risk than if you were drinking vodka, beer or pretty much any other type of alcohol, and—just like after binge drinking—the risks of accidental injury and road accidents are vastly increased. Over time, the risks of various cancers, serious damage to your liver, high blood pressure, stroke, depression and many other conditions is significantly increased.

Tackling the growing trend of drinking hand sanitizer is challenging, but one simple suggestion could help. Labels for hand sanitizers currently read “isopropyl alcohol,” but changing this to “isopropanol” or “propane-2-ol” would make it harder for people—youths in particular—to identify that the product contains alcohol, despite the names describing exactly the same chemical. Additionally, for parents concerned about kids drinking hand sanitizer at home, although the alcohol content is technically the same, the reduced amount of liquid dispensed from foam varieties makes it more difficult to get drunk.

Finally, increased awareness about the trend of getting drunk on hand sanitizer is essential. This will help those working in stores to identify a potential problem when youths attempt to buy alcohol-containing sanitizer, particularly if they’re attempting to buy an unusual amount, and will give teachers reason to think twice when they find students with hand sanitizer in their possession. Additionally, staff members at prisons and rehab centers will be able to identify anybody getting drunk on the premises.

Talking to Your Kids About Alcohol

For parents concerned about their teen drinking hand sanitizer, the best advice is to have a frank discussion with him or her about alcohol, its risks and the additional danger of drinking high-strength liquor. If you’re an involved parent and you make your views on underage drinking clear, studies have shown that your teen will be less likely to drink. Ask them questions about their lives, be supportive and let them know they can ask you about anything related to alcohol or other issues they may encounter.

However, as the case reports on adults show, anybody who knows an alcoholic should be aware of the possibility of that person using hand sanitizer to get drunk — so he or she can’t claim to be abstinent but imbibe without you realizing. If you suspect an issue, the conversation may be a difficult one, but if it helps them overcome their addiction—or at least to try to—it will be well worth it.

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