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After Texas woman catches fire, experts warn of hand sanitizer safety

Experts say that people should be mindful that hand sanitizer is flammable.
/ Source: TODAY

A few weeks ago, Kate Wise used some hand sanitizer then lit a candle. But, suddenly her arm caught fire. As she tried putting out the flames, they spread to the bottle of sanitizer, which exploded, causing burns on her face and body. Wise shared her story with a local Texas news station to warn others about the dangers of mixing hand sanitizer with flames.

“It can be something as small as lighting a candle,” Wise told KHOU 11 in Houston. “Because of the hand sanitizer, it just lit my whole … everywhere I had hand sanitizer on my hand. It just lit my hand with fire.”

Wise did not respond to TODAY requests for an interview, but the Houston station reported she was recovering in the ICU after the accident. A spokesperson for the city of Round Rock, located north of Austin, shared a statement with TODAY that firefighters responded to a fire on August 30, which occurred when an adult female resident lit a candle after applying hand sanitizer and it caught fire.

What to know about hand sanitizer and fire

While experts agree that this is a tragic and rare accident, they do think people need to be mindful about hand sanitizers and fire.

“Hand sanitizers with high concentrations of ethanol and hydroxypropyl are flammable,” Dr. Anthony Pizon, chief of medical toxicology at UPMC in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “Any amount of hand sanitizer can light on fire. The volume controls how rapidly the flame will spread. If you have a little bit on your hands, a little bit will light on fire.”

The alcohols most commonly used in hand sanitizers kill germs but can also ignite when close to flames. Though doctors most frequently hear complaints of dry, cracked skin and contact dermatitis, what might seem like a chemical burn, from using hand sanitizers. If that happens, Pizon recommends people simply switch brands to something less irritating for their skin.

The Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about more than 100 products that contain methanol, which can be toxic when absorbed through the skin. In August, the FDA also warned consumers to be wary of hand sanitizers packaged to look like food or drink as it can be easily confused and ingested. Consuming hand sanitizer can poison people.

Fires from hand sanitizer are uncommon, but that might change as more and more people douse themselves in it.

“I’m not seeing that this has a very high incidence but it’s been fairly recently that we’ve been seeing an increased use in hand sanitizer because of everything going on with COVID-19,” Meaghan Crawley, an injury prevention specialist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY. “It is important for people to remember that hand sanitizers, for the most part, are alcohol-based and those hand sanitizers are flammable, but the gas is flammable (too).”

How to prevent injuries:

As hand sanitizer dries, it evaporates into gas, which can also catch fire. That’s why the experts recommend that people avoid lighters, matches and fires after using hand sanitizer.

“You should make sure your hands are completely dry before you light a match,” Pizon said.

If one does catch fire because of hand sanitizer, he recommends people cover it or use water to put it out. People should store their hand sanitizer away from any type of open flame, including gas stoves, fire places, fire pits, candles and incense, for example.

“It has really high concentrations of alcohols. It can be flammable so keeping it away from flames is an important public health reminder,” Pizon said.

Crawley agrees.

“The increased use of the hand sanitizers (means) sometimes there are accidents that can happen,” she said. “It’s always a good thing to be mindful of especially moving into the colder months when people would be more likely to light a fire.”