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Hand Sanitizer: This One COVID Commodity Can Actually be Dangerous for Teens With Substance Use Problems

With the arrival of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the U.S., hand sanitizers and similar products literally flew off the shelves in most major retail stores. Though the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends handwashing as the number-one way to prevent getting infected, hand sanitizer is in high demand for those who can’t access soap and water on the go. Big box stores, drug stores, and grocery stores are constantly replenishing empty shelves as people all over the country snatch up Purell and other sanitizing gels as soon as they’re available.

But hand sanitizer isn’t always a means of protection. For certain teenagers, it could actually be a gateway to danger.

Why, you ask?

Because of one simple fact: hand sanitizer contains alcohol.

Hand Sanitizer Can Get Your Teen High

Hand sanitizers and other antiseptics often have concentrations of alcohol around 60%. What most people don’t know is that this is higher than the alcohol content found in hard liquor like vodka and bourbon. Unfortunately, this high alcohol content motivates some at-risk adolescents to drink hand sanitizer. The effects are similar to alcohol intoxication, but can be more dangerous because they come on quickly.

A teen who drinks hand sanitizer experiences all the symptoms of being drunk:

  • Slurred speech
  • Trouble with coordination
  • Vomiting

But that’s not all. Ingesting the isopropyl alcohol found in hand sanitizer can:

  • Damage the nervous system
  • Cause blindness
  • Harm the vital organs

Parents and adults often don’t think of the dangers of hand sanitizer, and freely provide it for their children. During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s normal to find hand sanitizer everywhere – at supermarkets, major retailers, in the bathroom, at the front entryway, and in everyone’s purses and pockets.

This makes things difficult for teens who live with and alcohol or substance use disorder and may be tempted to ingest hand sanitizer.

“Unfortunately, parents are not even aware that this sort of thing exists in teens,” says Lisa Faguet, LCSW, Clinical Program Director at Evolve Treatment Centers in Agoura Hills. “They’re worried about drugs on the street and in school, but they have no idea that their teens can be getting high in their own home.

If Your Teen Struggles With Substance Abuse

If your teen has a history of substance abuse, or is currently experimenting with recreational drugs, keep hand sanitizer away from them. Do not distribute it to them or your other children. Do not purchase it for the home unless you plan to keep it under lock and key. The same goes for other substances such as prescription painkillers and cough medicines: they can be abused the same way alcohol or other illegal drugs can.

Staying safe during COVID-19 is important, but there are other ways you can keep the virus at bay without hand sanitizer. First, you can wear gloves whenever you leave the house. Use Lysol wipes to open doors and push elevator buttons. Avoid touching your face, especially(!) when wearing gloves. Wash your hands vigorously with soap and water for a full twenty seconds as soon as you get home. Encourage your teen to take all these measures as well.

We sincerely hope you and everyone in your family stays safe and healthy!

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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