You may have heard about people drinking hand sanitizer to get drunk or get a buzz. Is it safe? What are the effects? It's time to get the answers.
Drinking Hand Sanitizer
A typical 240 ml container of hand sanitizer gel contains about the same amount of alcohol as five shots of hard liquor. It's hard to say when drinking hand sanitizer came into vogue, but reports of its use as an intoxicant with prison inmates started surfacing around 2009. Recent trends, mainly practiced by teens, include mixing hand sanitizer with mouthwash to make a strong minty cocktail, mixing the gel with salt to separate the alcohol from the gel, and distilling the alcohol from hand sanitizer.
Drinking the resulting cocktail is called "hand sanitrippin'," "getting a hand sanity fix," "getting drunk on Mr. Clean's Tears," or "getting hand sanitized."
Chemical Composition of Hand Sanitizer
The problem here is that there are different types of alcohol that may be used as the disinfectant in hand sanitizer and only one of them isn't deadly poisonous! Methanol is not used in hand sanitizer because it is toxic and is absorbed through the skin.
Hand sanitizer containing isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) is used in hand sanitizer. While it is not absorbed through the skin as much as methanol, this alcohol is toxic and will damage your nervous system and internal organs if you drink it. Possible effects may include blindness, brain damage, and kidney and liver damage. These effects may be permanent. It's also possible to die from drinking this chemical. Although rubbing alcohol is not good to drink, it's unlikely a person would be able to tell the effects apart from those caused by drinking grain alcohol. Drinking isopropyl alcohol initially causes intoxication, slurred speech, blurred vision, and dizziness.
Hand sanitizer containing ethyl alcohol (ethanol or grain alcohol) theoretically could be drunk, except it may be denatured. This means the alcohol has purposely been adulterated to make it undrinkable. Back in the days of Prohibition, denaturing agents included arsenic and benzene. Modern denaturing agents range from toxic chemicals to non-toxic, foul-tasting chemicals. The problem is that you can't tell from the label which denaturing chemical was used.
Hand Sanitizer Ingredient List
When you read a bottle of hand sanitizer, you'll likely see ethyl alcohol listed as the active ingredient, usually around 60 percent. This is equivalent to 120-proof liquor. In comparison, straight vodka is only 80-proof. Other (inactive) ingredients include benzophenone-4, carbomer, fragrance, glycerin, isopropyl myristate, propylene glycol, tocopheryl acetate, and water. Some of these ingredients are harmless, while others are toxic. Of this sample list, the fragrance is the additive most likely to cause problems. You can't tell the composition of the fragrance and many common scents are derived from petrochemicals.
Can You Drink It?
You can drink hand sanitizer, but the bottom line is that you shouldn't. Even if the label lists ethyl alcohol as the only active ingredient, it's unlikely that alcohol is in a drinkable form. Plus, the other ingredients may be toxic. Yes, it's possible to distill alcohol from hand sanitizer, but you'll likely have a low-purity (contaminated) product.
The main risk of drinking hand sanitizer isn't from the toxic chemicals but from the extremely high alcohol content. Most people who are hospitalized from drinking hand sanitizer are there because of alcohol poisoning (an alcohol overdose). The alcohol content is so high that it is easy to drink a dangerous amount of alcohol before feeling the initial effects.
- There are different formulations of hand sanitizer, but all of them include chemicals that make drinking it dangerous.
- It is possible to get intoxicated by drinking hand sanitizer made using ethyl alcohol or ethanol.
- Other types of alcohol may be used as a disinfectant in hand sanitizer, including isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol is poisonous.
- Even if a product is free of denaturing agents, perfumes, or other additives, drinking hand sanitizer is dangerous because it contains higher percent alcohol than an alcoholic beverage. There is an extreme risk of alcohol poisoning or overdose.
- It's possible to distill ethanol from hand sanitizer to purify it. The distilled product will still contain some level of impurities.
Isopropyl Alcohol Material Safety Data Sheet, Halloa Enterprise Co., Ltd., Farnell, Taiwan.
"Material Safety Data Sheet." Section 1. Chemical Product and Company Identification, Spectrum Chemical, September 11, 2006.
"Prisoner 'drunk on swine flu gel.'" BBC News, September 24, 2009, UK.