Toxic Hand Sanitizer Recall Due to 'Deliberate Decision' by Manufacturers to Cut Costs

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recalled more than 100 hand sanitizers due to their toxicity—and experts say it is because manufacturers have deliberately substituted ingredients that are harmful in order to cut costs.

The "do-not-use" list of hand sanitizers that the FDA warned people about because they contain methanol, or wood alcohol, or because they were produced in facilities where methanol contamination was detected in products, has grown from a handful in June to around 150—the majority of them manufactured and bottled in Mexico.

The FDA said there has been a sharp increase in hand sanitizer products that are labeled to contain ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, but that have tested positive for methanol contamination.

Methanol is not an approved ingredient for hand sanitizers as it "can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested and can be life-threatening when ingested," the agency said.

Aline Holmes, a clinical associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Nursing, told Newsweek that the recall is because "a deliberate decision has been made to substitute methanol for ethanol by manufacturers."

Holmes added: "Methanol and ethanol are both alcohols, but methanol is highly toxic and can cause death, seizure, blindness if ingested. It is also toxic with prolonged exposure through the skin."

The FDA said it is "aware of adults and children ingesting hand sanitizer products contaminated with methanol that has led to recent adverse events including blindness, hospitalizations and death." Eight people have died in the U.S. this year after ingesting hand sanitizers contaminated with methanol, Newsweek recently reported.

Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management, says the reason some suppliers are substituting the toxic substance in products is to keep up with the demand and to cut down on costs.

The demand for hand sanitizer products has skyrocketed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Penfield noted.

"Unfortunately, U.S. hand sanitizer manufacturers have been unable to keep up with these orders and many of these products are on back order," Penfield told Newsweek.

"Some U.S. retail and distribution companies started importing hand sanitizers from Mexico due to this shortage."

Penfield said a number of Mexican hand sanitizer companies had difficulty procuring ethyl alcohol of isopropyl. "Because of worldwide demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, the price of this ingredient has skyrocketed and lead times have doubled," he said.

"So in order to meet hand sanitizer demand from the U.S., some Mexican hand sanitizer producers started replacing ethyl alcohol with methanol in order to keep prices low and to supply their customers.

"Unfortunately, methanol can be toxic when absorbed through the skin and the United States was lax in testing and evaluating these imported products to make sure they were safe for people to use."

Peter Pitts, a former associate commissioner at the FDA who is now the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, recently told NBC News that the toxic hand sanitizers ended up on store shelves in the U.S. because companies were flouting the usual procedures that ensure product safety.

"When you're in a large company or a small company and you're buying products in bulk, as sanitizer is purchased, you want to understand the provenance of that product—where it was manufactured, whether or not it's been approved under good manufacturing standards brought by the FDA—and clearly that was simply ignored," he said.

In a statement to Newsweek, a spokesperson for the FDA did not comment on the issue, but said the agency's investigation of methanol in certain hand sanitizers is ongoing.

"Methanol is not an acceptable ingredient for hand sanitizers and must not be used due to its toxic effects," the spokesperson said. "The hand sanitizers listed on FDA's webpage have tested positive for methanol contamination or have concerningly low levels of ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol."

But Stephen Hahn, the FDA's commissioner, has previously acknowledged that the recall is due to some companies taking advantage of the massive demand for hand sanitizers.

"Unfortunately, there are some companies taking advantage of the increased usage of hand sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic and putting lives at risk by selling products with dangerous and unacceptable ingredients," he said in a statement on July 2.

"Consumers and health care providers should not use methanol-containing hand sanitizers."

hand sanitizer
Stock photo shows a close up of a bottle of hand sanitizer. Experts say manufacturers have been using methanol, a toxic substance, instead of ethyl alcohol in hand sanitizer products in order to cut costs. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images