If you're a parent worried that your kids drink too much soda, it could be worse. The latest fad among the teen set involves drinking an even more insidious "beverage" -- hand sanitizer. That's right. Kids are guzzling hand sanitizer in an attempt to get drunk. Now that's a twist on washing your mouth out with soap.
The trend of ingesting hand sanitizer came to the attention of authorities after six California teens landed in emergency rooms with acute alcohol poisoning obtained via a hand-wash cocktail. Similar cases have been popping up nationwide. Hand sanitizer is potent stuff, with 62 percent ethyl alcohol content. Distilled, it becomes a 120-proof beverage. For the sake of comparison, Beefeater Gin ranges from 80- to 94-proof. Absolut Vodka is 80 proof. There's a 151-proof version of Bacardi Rum, but it's usually used in minute amounts, mixed with soda and other liquids. The kids, however, aren't using hand sanitizer to flavor cocktails. They're making a distilled beverage and swigging the stuff straight in order to get plastered.
Ingesting hand sanitizer follows a long list of creative favorites tried by teens in an effort to get a buzz. A generation or so ago, sniffing glue headed the list, followed by cough syrup, and then mouthwash. Hand sanitizer seems like a step beyond, given that it's certainly not meant to go anywhere near the oral cavity and it smells so, well, soapy. And by the way, reports coming out of Canada indicate that the trend isn't limited to just teens, but also includes children as young as eight who already have a taste for getting tipsy.1
Most hand sanitizers have high alcohol content because the alcohol kills germs. Research shows that alcohol is effective in wiping out bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Alcohol-free sanitizers also exist, and they're of no interest to the kids. Should parents just buy the alcohol free variety? Not necessarily. The non-alcohol alternatives have problems, too. They usually contain a cocktail of chemicals known for toxicity.
Jon Barron has written before about one such antibacterial chemical, triclosan, which has potentially harmful effects even when used externally. Triclosan is known to be a hormone disrupter. When exposed to chlorinated water, triclosan converts to chloroform gas, a probable human carcinogen, as well as dioxins, which are extremely toxic endocrine disrupters that bio-accumulate in human tissue. Compared to triclosan-based products, the alcohol-derived hand soaps look benign, at least at first glance.
Instructions detailing how to convert the hand wash into a potable beverage appear on the internet. (And no, we're not going to provide the link here.) According to David Monroe, a pediatric emergency room doctor at Howard County General Hospital in Maryland, "In order to extract the alcohol from the hand sanitizer, [teenagers] have to either distill it or use a combination of other chemicals to get the alcohol separated from the soap, so that can lead to all kinds of problems."2
Of course, not all kids bother to do the extraction. Videos on You Tube show kids swallowing the stuff straight out of the bottle it came in.3 Repulsive as that sounds, it's evidence that at least some will do anything to get high--and getting high legally presents a big challenge for youth. The reason kids seem to be the primary consumers of hand wash aperitifs is that they're not of drinking age yet, and drugs are verboten. Hand soap is as legal as potato chips and usually already present in the home. If not, it's cheap enough for kids to buy on their own.
Side effects of drinking hand sanitizer may include stinging, burning, diarrhea, vomiting, blindness, memory impairment, damage to internal organs, and acute alcohol poisoning. These effects can be permanent. But these dangers don't daunt the youth. Either they don't know about them, or the risk is part of the thrill.
Experts advise parents to stock the foaming kind of hand sanitizer in lieu of the gel. It's harder to extract the alcohol from the foam. But should parents -- or anyone -- buy hand sanitizing products at all? Even if you don't have daredevil kids at home aching to get high by swallowing Purell, you might think twice. One big problem with hand sanitizers is that they promote bacterial resistance. They may kill off friendly bacteria along with the germs, and they have been shown to give rise to antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Plus, whether you use alcohol-based or non-alcohol products, most hand washes contain other harmful ingredients, such as fragrances with neurotoxic properties. All these concerns exist even if you use the product solely as intended -- to wash hands.
In any event, soap and water work at least as well as hand sanitizing products, and there's little danger of your kid making soap into a drink. Prefer a sanitizer? There are safe products out there, as a fast perusal of the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database shows.4 If you choose a mainstream alcohol-based product, though, the experts say you should watch the bottles the same way you'd guard your liquor cabinet. Should you notice empty bottles more often than normal use would warrant, you'd better find out if your kids have developed a taste for the stuff.
1 "Teenagers Guzzle Hand Sanitizer to Get Drunk." 25 April 2012. You Tube. 26 April 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGNFeXEwO18>
2 Jackson, Angela. "Teens Drinking Hand Sanitizer to Get Drunk." 26 April 2012. WBAL News. 26 April 2012. < http://wbal.com/article/89259/3/template-story/Teens-Drinking-Hand-Sanitizer-To-Get-Drunk>
3 Gorman, Anna. "A troubling trend in kids drinking hand sanitizer." 24 April, 2012. LA Times. 27 April 2012. <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-hand-sanitizer-20120424,0,4801404.story>
4EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. < http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/browse.php?category=hand_sanitizer&&showmore=products&atatime=500>