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Last updated 2020.04.15


Hand Sanitizer Fire Disinformation (COVID-19 pandemic)

A reader shared a video with me showing someone setting a puddle of hand sanitizer on fire, and cautioned about the fire hazard. Doing a little research to try to figure out the origin of the video, I found out about some other disinformation about hand sanitizer hazards. What I'm about to go into here is about conventional branded commercially available hand sanitizer. I'm not speaking about hand-made stuff, as I have no idea of what all could be in those. However, typical hand sanitizers are somewhere around 70% alcohol, and include some glycerin, moisturizer and emulsifier to keep everything mixed together in a gel. Recipes do vary.

Make no mistake, alcohol is flammable. That's the reason that flambé cooking works. I haven't tried it, but I expect that bananas lit up with hand sanitizer won't be delicious. Also, the alcohol in hand sanitizer may not be ethyl alcohol, so it may be poisonous. Not for internal consumption.

There are some other disinformation memes going around about hand sanitizer. Two I'm aware of are:
1) using hand sanitizer will cause chemical burns on your skin; and,
2) there is a serious potential burn (fire) hazard if you use hand sanitizer.

Millions of people have used branded commercial hand sanitizer for years. I have not found a credible case in my searches of the hand sanitizer alone causing chemical burns.

On the fire hazard issue, I decided to do a small science experiment. I have a couple of videos for you.

In the first video, I am replicating the viral video that shows a puddle of hand sanitizer being ignited. This is exactly what I expect. A blob of emulsified, jelled alcohol, freshly applied, should ignite when exposed to a flame.
Hand_Sanitizer_Puddle_Flammability.MP4 (runs just over a minute)

No need to panic. When you apply hand sanitizer to your skin and rub it around to get good coverage, you will notice a cooling effect. That's the effect of the alcohol evaporating, and cooling the heat source - your skin. This short contact to ensure good coverage and kill off any viruses which might be present is enough to remove the alcohol and the fire hazard.
Hand_Sanitizer_Spread_Flammability.MP4 (35 seconds)

Note the spreading of the gel to emulate how you would apply it to your hands. That frees the alcohol from the gel (emulsion) so it can kill viruses and evaporate. Then note that I can't ignite the remaining hand sanitizer.

Used as intended, the hand sanitizer remaining on your skin does not catch fire. Don't take a bath in it. A small quantity (2-4 drops) is sufficient to disinfect your hands.

Also note, soap and water is considered more effective than alcohol-based hand sanitizer at killing viruses (assuming you know how to wash your hands properly). If you have the choice of soap and water or alcohol sanitizer, use soap and water. Save the hand sanitizer for when soap and water is not available.

Some other references on the hand sanitizer fire hazard disinfo:
https://www.truthorfiction.com/purell/
https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/safety-moment/
https://www.ibtimes.sg/netizens-say-alcohol-based-hand-sanitizers-can-cause-burn-if-you-go-near-fire-heres-truth-41651

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