FDA warns of hand sanitizers packaged to look like food

In recent weeks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified over 100 products that contain methanol, a type of wood alcohol that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin.

Now the FDA has issued a new warning — this time, it's not about the contents of certain hand sanitizers, but about how they're packaged, NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen reported Thursday morning on TODAY. The FDA advises to watch out for hand sanitizers packaged to look like food and drinks, specifically those "packaged in beer cans, children's food pouches, water bottles, juice bottles and vodka bottles."

As an example of the confusion, the FDA said it received a report of a customer who bought a bottle they thought was drinking water, but turned out to be hand sanitizer.

The agency is also warning parents to avoid hand sanitizer with food scents like chocolate or raspberry because they may be more tempting to children to ingest.

Sanitizer can be toxic when ingested. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), calls to poison control are up 70% over last year due to exposure to hand sanitizer. At least 15 people in Arizona and New Mexico have been hospitalized or have died from sanitizer ingestion.

To avoid accidental ingestion, follow these tips from the AAPCC:

  • Place products out of sight on a high shelf where children cannot see or reach them.

  • Avoid brightly packaged hand sanitizers that may be tempting to children — and avoid repackaging hand sanitizer in water bottles or other containers that can be easily confused.

  • Save the number of poison control (1-800-222-1222) in your phone — or post on your refrigerator in case of emergency. If you think you or someone else has ingested sanitizer, call immediately. Don't wait for symptoms to develop.

FDA warns of hand sanitizers containing methanol

Recently, the FDA expanded its recall of sanitizers to include more than 75 brands. Most of the products were made in Mexico, but sold in stores throughout the United States. With the demand for hand sanitizer at all time high early in the pandemic in March and April — and established brands becoming hard to find — unproven and poorly produced alternatives flooded the market.

In a recent warning in late July, the agency said it had established an import alert to prevent certain hand sanitizers from entering the United States and is encouraging retailers to stop selling the products.

The initial press release on this topic issued on June 19, highlighted nine hand sanitizers manufactured by Eskbiochem SA de CV, that were found to contain methanol.

According to the release, samples of the Lavar Gel and CleanCare No Germ were tested. The Lavar Gel product "contains 81% methanol and no ethyl alcohol," while CleanCare No Germ "contains 28% methanol."

In early July, the organization identified additional hand sanitizer products containing methanol:

  • Grupo Insoma's Hand Sanitizer Gel Unscented, 70% alcohol

  • Transliquid Technologies' Mystic Shield Protection Hand Sanitizer

  • Soluciones Cosmeticas' Bersih Hand Sanitizer Gel Fragrance Free and Antiseptic Alcohol 70% Topical Solution Hand Sanitizer

  • Tropicosmeticos' Britz Hand Sanitizer Ethyl Alcohol 70%

By July 8, several dozen more products had been added to the list for either containing methanol or for being created in a facility where other contaminated products were made and have been recommended for recall. Some of those brands include:

  • Blumen Clear Advanced Hand Sanitizer

  • KLAR AND DANVER Instant Hand Sanitizer (labeled with Greenbrier International Inc.)

  • MODESA Instant Hand Sanitizer Moisturizers and Vitamin E

  • The Honeykeeper Hand Sanitizer

  • Hello Kitty by Sanrio Hand Sanitizer

  • Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer

  • LumiSkin Advance Hand Sanitizer

On July 15, BJ's Wholesale Club directed customers who purchased BLUMEN Clear Advance Hand Sanitizer to reach out to the manufacturer's website for a refund.

Later in July, more than two dozen more types of contaminated hand sanitizer were added to the list, including multiple products produced by Mexican company Real Clean Distribuciones SA de CV. Some of the products were labeled as being anti-bacterial. Some of the products added include:

  • Born Basic. Anti-Bac Hand Sanitizer

  • Scent Theory – Keep It Clean – Pure Clean Anti-bacterial Hand Sanitizer

  • ENLIVEN Hand Sanitizing Gel

  • Lux Eoi Hand Sanitizing Gel

By late July, several other hand sanitizers produced in Mexico were also recalled, including:

  • Shine and Clean Hand Sanitizer, manufactured by Maquiladora Miniara, SA de CV

  • DAESI hand sanitizer, manufactured by Yara Elena De La Garza Perez Nieto

  • Hand sanitizer (labeled with Wet Look Janitorial and Gardening Corp.), manufactured by Soluciones Cosmeticas SA de CV

  • Hand Sanitizer Disinfectant Gel 70% Ethyl Alcohol (labeled with Resource Recovery & Trading LLC), manufactured by MXL Comercial SA de CV

In total, there are currently over 100 types of hand sanitizer listed on the FDA's site.

"Methanol is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizers and should not be used due to its toxic effects," said the FDA release. "Consumers who have been exposed to hand sanitizer containing methanol should seek immediate treatment, which is critical for potential reversal of toxic effects of methanol poisoning."

According to the CDC, 15 deaths and several hospitalizations in Arizona and New Mexico from May to June, 2020 are believed to be linked to methanol in hand sanitizers, though the brands have not been confirmed. It's believed that some of the hand sanitizer may have been ingested, rather than applied to the skin.

The FDA warns that "substantial methanol exposure" can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system or even death. Those who are most at risk for these symptoms, according to the FDA, are "young children who accidentally ingest these products" and "adolescents and adults who drink these products as an alcohol (ethanol) substitute."

If you are using hand sanitizer, make sure to use a product that does not contain methanol and contains at least 60% ethanol. However, the FDA recommends that people wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, as opposed to using hand sanitizer.

This story was updated on August 28 to include information about the FDA's warning about sanitizers packaged to look like food and drinks, and has been updated several times in July and early August to reflect further recalls.