Answer reviewed 26 February 2023
It is important to be aware of the main hazards of hand sanitisers, so that effective controls can be put in place.
Hazards of alcohol-based hand sanitisers
The main hazards associated with the use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers are:
- Flammability due to the 70% alcohol component
- Possible poisoning due to ingestion
Due to the high alcohol content, it is highly flammable. A good document regarding this is Safety considerations for alcohol-based hand sanitisers,1 which contains the following advice:
Keep hand sanitisers out of reach of children.
Keep containers tightly closed when not in use.
Keep away from heat, sparks, open flames, hot surfaces etc. No smoking.
Use hand sanitisers in a ventilated space – do not use liquid sanitiser inside confined spaces without plenty of ventilation when applying (e.g., inside cars without windows down).
Do not keep hand sanitisers inside cars during warm or hot weather.
Keep away from oxidising agents (e.g., granulated pool chlorine).
Hand sanitiser dispensers should not be placed above or close to potential sources of ignition, such as light switches and electrical outlets, or next to oxygen cylinders, due to the increased risk of vapour igniting.”1
There have been a number of calls to the NSW Poisons Information Centre regarding the ingestion of hand sanitiser by young children, see ‘Hand sanitiser safety and children’, where they state the following:
“Hand sanitiser products should be stored safely and out of reach of children. When they are used by young children it should be under the supervision of an adult. Washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is also a safe and effective option to help combat COVID-19,” Ms Adamo said.
Consumers are reminded to be aware of imported products which may not be clearly labelled and may contain more toxic alcohols such as methanol that make the product more dangerous.” 2
The school setting
Given the school’s responsibility and their duty of care to students, we recommend that all hand sanitiser supplied by the school is kept in a secure location or at the teacher’s desk and used under the supervision of a staff member:
- Young children need supervision to ensure that they apply only an appropriate amount and that they don’t try to eat it.
- We recommend that a staff member dispense the sanitiser to each student.
- Older students also need supervision to ensure that they
- apply only an appropriate amount (whilst most students may be well behaved, it is possible that some unsupervised students may dispense an excessive amount of hand sanitiser, more than they require).
- don’t put themselves at risk of it catching alight if it is still moist on their skin and they are in high-risk areas such as science or home economics where they may be exposed to open flames or sparks (e.g., Bunsen burners, open flames on stove tops).
- We recommend that a staff member supervises the students’ dispensing of the sanitiser.
We also recommend that your school
- carefully considers the storage of hand sanitiser in the school in general.
- considers the suitability of its use in the science or other high-risk areas, given its flammability.
- includes it in your chemical register, obtains the current SDS and ensures it is readily accessible to workers.
- provides the necessary information, instruction and training to staff regarding its safe storage and use.
The use of hand sanitiser in the science area
Flammable liquids need to be appropriately stored (i.e., in a flammable liquid cabinet) when not in use. When they are in use in the science area, they should not be used in the vicinity of an open (or naked) flame.
If a school chooses to use hand sanitiser in the science area, it should have systems in place, identified by a risk assessment, to ensure that it is suitably used and stored. No residual alcohol should be on the skin from the use of hand sanitiser near the presence of open (naked) flames.
Making Hand sanitiser for school use
Science ASSIST does not recommend that schools make their own hand sanitiser for the following reasons/concerns:
- The concentration of alcohol may not be effective: This needs to be greater than 60%.3 It is impossible to guarantee that a formulation has the optimum concentration of alcohol for it to be effective if made at a school. This is dependent on many different factors, such as varying recipes, inaccurate measurements/procedures and the lack of specialist equipment to measure the alcohol content.4 This could lead to a false sense of security that people using such a product are adequately sanitising their hands.
- Contamination: Appropriate facilities, equipment and systems need to be in place to guard against contamination (e.g., from bacterial endospores). Existing chemical stocks also could be degraded or contaminated.
- Adverse reactions to ingredients: There is a possibility of adverse reactions by someone with sensitive skin/allergies or other medical conditions.
- School facilities: School preparation laboratories are not designed to manufacture cosmetic/ therapeutic goods for human use.
- Staff training: School staff are not trained to produce cosmetic/ therapeutic goods for human application.
- Hazards of flammable products: Consideration needs to be given to the management and storage of flammable products. If supply is required for each classroom in the school, this equates to a large volume of flammable products, which needs to be managed.
Whilst the internet has a myriad of recipes, often these refer to a recipe formulated by the World Health Organisation (WHO).5 The WHO formulation was devised for several reasons including its application in remote areas with limited handwashing facilities.6
Washing hands with soap and water is part of the good hygiene advice provided by the Australian Health Department7 and recognised as the preferred method for cleaning hands.8, 9
From a hygiene point of view paper towels are preferable to electric air dryers.10
Science ASSIST recommends washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and to dry hands with paper towel.7
Regulations regarding the manufacture of hand sanitisers
‘In Australia, hand sanitisers are regulated either as cosmetics or therapeutic goods depending on their ingredients and the claims made about their effects.’11
Products that are classified as cosmetics,12 have strict requirements for labelling, which are regulated at a State/Territory level.13 Products that make claims about preventing or curing health conditions are considered therapeutic goods14 and are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). There are warnings about therapeutic goods claiming to prevent or treat coronavirus (COVID-19).14
Using methylated spirits as a source of alcohol
In the current situation, many suppliers are limiting the sale of ethanol and isopropyl alcohol. Whilst several recipes for hand sanitiser refer to the WHO recipe, we note that the WHO advises against the use of technical grade ingredients.5
Methylated spirits may have an additive to prevent it being consumed.17 Supplies from hardware stores (and similar) are technical grade and could have impurities in it, therefore it would not be recommended for use in the manufacture/blending of any products for personal use.
1 Government of Western Australia Department of Mines, Industry, Regulation and Safety. (2020, April 14). Dangerous Goods Safety Bulletin No. 0120 Safety considerations for alcohol-based hand sanitisers. Retrieved from Government of Western Australia Department of Mines, Industry, Regulation and Safety: https://www.dmp.wa.gov.au/Documents/Dangerous-Goods/DGS_SB_0120.pdf (Accessed via Dangerous goods safety alerts. Retrieved from Government of Western Australia Department of Mines, Industry, Regulation and Safety: https://www.dmp.wa.gov.au/Safety/Dangerous-goods-safety-alerts-13195.aspx)
2 NSW Government NSW Health. (2020, April 12). Hand sanitiser safety and children. Retrieved from NSW Government NSW Health: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/news/Pages/20200412_01.aspx
3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, January 26). How to Protect Yourself and Others. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/preventio...
4 Longmire, Marianna. (2020, March 24). What you should know before making your own hand sanitiser. Retrieved from CHOICE: https://www.choice.com.au/health-and-body/beauty-and-personal-care/skin-...
5 World Health Organisation. (2010, May 7). Guide to local production: WHO-recommended handrub formulations. Retrieved from World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-IER-PSP-2010.5
6 World Health Organisation. (2009). 12 WHO-recommended handrub formulations. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK144054/
7 Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. (2022, December 7). Protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Retrieved from Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care: https://www.health.gov.au/health-alerts/covid-19/protect-yourself-and-ot...
8World Health Organisation. (2023). Hand hygiene. Retrieved from World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/teams/integrated-health-services/infection-preventio...
9 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 10). Handwashing in Communities: Clean Hands Save Lives. Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html
10 Huang, C., Wenjun, M., & Stack, S. (2012, June 1). The Hygienic Efficacy of Different Hand-Drying Methods: A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 87(8), 791-798. https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(12)00393-X/fulltext
11 Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme. (n.d.). Hand sanitisers. Retrieved from Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care: https://www.industrialchemicals.gov.au/cosmetics-and-soap/hand-sanitisers
12 Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme. (n.d.). Cosmetics and soap. Retrieved from Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care: https://www.industrialchemicals.gov.au/cosmetics-and-soap
13 Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme. (n.d.). Labelling, SDS and packaging. Retrieved from Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care: https://www.industrialchemicals.gov.au/help-and-guides/labelling-sds-and...
14 Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. (2021, November 8). Warning about products claiming to treat or prevent the novel coronavirus. Retrieved from Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. Therapeutic Goods Administration: https://www.tga.gov.au/news/media-releases/warning-about-products-claimi...
17 Sydney Solvents. (2023). Methylated Spirits. Retrieved from Sydney Solvents: https://www.sydneysolvents.com.au/methylated-spirits
Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. (2020, August 21). Hand sanitisers: Information for consumers. Retrieved from Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. Therapeutic Goods Administration: https://www.tga.gov.au/resources/resource/guidance/hand-sanitisers-infor...
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, June 3). Handwashing in Communities: Clean Hands Save Lives. Fact Sheets. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/fact-sheets.html
Dr. Karl. (2020, March 13). Dr Karl's tips on hand washing and staying safe from Coronavirus. Retrieved from the Australian Broadcasting Commission: https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/mornings/hand-washing-tips-from-...
Fu, Rina. (2020, March 24). Hand Washing Technique- Dr Rina [video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P81roNHPpb8
Queensland Government WorkSafe. (2020, May 18). Alcohol-based hand sanitiser manufacturers. Retrieved from Queensland Government WorkSafe: https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/safety-and-prevention/hazards/hazardous-...
World Health Organisation. (2015, October 20). WHO: How to handwash? With soap and water [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PmVJQUCm4E
World Health Organisation. (2020, November 10). Infection prevention and control: Alcohol-based handrub risks and hazards. Retrieved from World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/alcohol-based-h...
I contacted Safework NSW last year to check on our concerns about storing hand sanitisers in classrooms. They suggested with young students it be kept out of reach and a staff member dispense the sanitiser to each student. With older students, they could dispense it themselves but should be supervised. It should be stored where students cannot readily access it, ie teacher's bench.