- Online pharmacy Valisure sounded the alarm over hand sanitizer batches contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical benzene.
- Experts recommend using products that contain at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol.
- Additionally, they say it should not be “denatured” to ensure it’s effective, and to reduce the chances it’s contaminated with benzene.
Hand sanitizer, long relied on to help prevent infection, has become extraordinarily important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But not all brands are made to the same standards. Some may include harmful ingredients like methanol, which can be toxic when used on skin.
Recently, online pharmacy Valisure sounded the alarm over what the company says are hand sanitizer batches contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical benzene.
Valisure has submitted a citizen petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates hand sanitizer, requesting the FDA issue an immediate recall of the affected batches and update guidance to include an exposure limit for benzene.
“Out of the 44 batches of hand sanitizer containing benzene, at least 20 (45%) have product labels that indicate the use of additional ingredients to improve the smell, taste, or appearance, which do not adhere to FDA guidance,” the company wrote on its website.
Valisure warned that this could also make hand sanitizer more appealing to children and increase the risk of ingestion.
Benzene found in multiple hand sanitizer samples
According to the citizen petition, the company analyzed 260 unique batches of hand sanitizer from 168 brands.
The analysis found 44 batches contained benzene levels of at least 0.1 parts per million (ppm).
Twenty-one batches, including both liquid and gel hand sanitizers, had levels above the 2 ppm interim limit set by the FDA.
The highest level detected was 16.1 ppm, over eight times the FDA limit.
“It’s unclear how the contamination occurred but may be related to manufacturing alcohol, a raw material to make hand sanitizers, which is antibacterial [and] goes through a purification process,” he said.
List of high-benzene hand sanitizer found in petition
A complete list of the hand sanitizers with high benzene levels is in table 2 of the petition Valisure sent to the FDA.
According to Dr. Theresa Capriotti, RN, clinical professor at Villanova University’s M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, benzene is especially dangerous when it’s swallowed or touches bare skin.
“Benzene is found in petroleum-based products and degreasing solutions,” she explained. “It is also a toxin in cigarette smoke. It is toxic. It should not be handled with bare hands or ingested.”
But it isn’t the only dangerous chemical found in some brands.
Methanol in hand sanitizer
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol-based hand sanitizers should only contain ethanol or isopropanol, but some products imported into the United States have been found to contain methanol.
“Methanol is a product they are most worried about as some sanitizers contain this ingredient in lieu of ethyl alcohol,” Capriotti said. “Methanol is ‘wood alcohol’ and is not safe.”
She cautioned that methanol can be toxic when absorbed through the skin and can be life threatening when ingested.
“Ethyl alcohol, also called ethanol, is the most important and effective component of the hand sanitizer, and it should be at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol,” she advised.
The FDA prohibited imports of hand sanitizer from Mexico in January due to high levels of methanol, and recalled hundreds of brands contaminated with the chemical or containing dangerous microbes.
Which products to avoid
Mary Beth Genter, PhD, professor of environmental and public health sciences at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, advises against using brands that contain denatured alcohol.
“Denatured, in this context, means that the alcohol, generally ethanol, is modified to make it taste bad, smell bad, or be toxic if ingested,” Genter said, adding that benzene has been used in the past to do this.
“There’s no way to tell by looking at a label if benzene was the additive used to denature the ethanol, so just avoiding denatured ethanol might be the soundest advice,” she said.
Greg Altman, PhD, co-founder of Evolved By Nature, a green chemistry company that also produces eco-friendly hand sanitizer, said it’s crucial to know what’s in the sanitizers we’re using several times each day.
He recommends keeping these four “S” words in mind when shopping for sanitizer:
If it smells off or doesn’t have a clean, alcohol scent, be wary. The smell could be due to contaminants, not just methanol, but also acetone and other harmful chemicals.
Any alcohol content less than 70 percent, or claims like “alcohol free,” means it may not be adequate to kill germs.
“Some manufacturers will reduce the alcohol content to 62 percent and use additives like BZK, an alternative form of antimicrobial, to make up the difference,” Altman said.
Sink and sewers
Thickening agents like carbomers, or any ingredient with the word “acrylate,” is toxic to the earth.
It's “essentially liquid plastic on your hands,” Altman said, that goes down the sink and into the environment.
“If it feels sticky on the skin, chances are it contains glycerin,” Altman explained. “Many manufacturers use this as a cheap thickening agent. However, it is known to lower the effective kill potential of ethanol.”
The bottom line
An online pharmacy analyzed hundreds of brands of hand sanitizer and found some contained high levels of the carcinogen benzene.
Experts say this isn’t the only potentially dangerous chemical that can be found in sanitizer. There's also methanol and microbial contamination to look out for.
Experts recommend using products that contain at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol and that have not been “denatured” to ensure it’s effective, and to reduce the chances it’s contaminated with benzene.