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Are Hand Sanitizers Dangerous?

Many of us heard the sad story recently about the Klamath Falls, OR 12-year-old girl who received second- and third-degree burns to one-fifth of her body while inside a hospital, after static charge sparks ignited the hand sanitizer she had just used to clean her hands and a bedside table. The sanitizer then burned olive oil that was on the girl’s scalp and T-shirt, making the flames burn more fiercely.

The fire marshal stated that the girl was burned through an unusual set of circumstances that had come together.

The girl was at the hospital undergoing tests after she hit her head at school and lost consciousness. The olive oil had been used to remove glue from her scalp that had held electrodes for an EEG exam in place. The girl had wiped some of the oil on her shirt.

The young girl had recently learned about static electricity, and she is said to have been trying to create sparks in her bed by scuffing her feet and rubbing the bed sheets. That’s when the alcohol-based hand sanitizer she had just used, which she may have also wiped on her shirt, caught on fire.

Since this unfortunate incident, fire authorities have stated that hand sanitizers are safe to use, as long as they’re used in a well-ventilated area, away from any flames or heat sources, and they’re used as directed.

But the event brings up an opportunity to ask the question of whether using hand sanitizers, especially for children, is a good idea after all.

For starters, many brands have harsh synthetic chemicals that can be toxic to our systems. Further, the amount of alcohol in sanitizers can be between 60 and 85 percent of the product’s volume, with most sanitizers containing a little more than 60 percent. This could prove too harsh for children’s skins, which are thinner and more delicate than adults’ skins.

If there is any type of flame or an incandescent heat source, such as a space heater, there is the risk, however small, that the sanitizer bottle could catch on fire, since alcohol fumes are forever being released from the dispenser. Or a person’s hands could be ignited after using the sanitizer and before the mixture has had a chance to dry.

Perhaps the unfortunate incident in Oregon is a reminder that sometimes, less is more, and that the natural way of going about things is often better than a commercial artifact.

Using a mild soap and water would be better for young children’s skins than using a harsh hand sanitizer.

And when soap and water are not available, a parent could fill an empty plastic bottle partly with some rubbing alcohol, then fill the rest with water. If you carry that as your emergency cleanser, it offers two ready advantages — besides the lower cost: you decide how much alcohol you want in your hand cleaner, and you know that your solution won’t have any synthetic additives that have been found to be toxic in some studies, and are frowned upon by natural health advocates (these include triclosan and propylene glycol, common ingredients in hand sanitizers).

Another great natural cleanser is vinegar. Mix equal parts vinegar and water, and you have a natural solution that will clean not only hands … but your home, as well! Vinegar offers the added advantage of moisturizing skin, instead of drying it, like alcohol can do.

If you want your hand cleaner to have more of a fragrance, you can use natural oils such as tea tree oil, which is a good antibacterial (and skin moisturizer), to make it.

There are also moist towelettes, which can come in very handy in a pinch. The challenge with these, however, is that many contain harsh chemicals that, again, can be bad for skin or even produce rashes. If you do opt for moistened, packaged wipes, buy ones that have neither alcohol nor fragrance, so as to be less irritating to a child’s skin.

By Marc Courtiol

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