The recent emphasis on flu prevention has caused an increased use of hand sanitizer--an alcohol-based gel that kills viruses and bacteria when applied to the hands. Hand sanitizer is a convenient, safe and effective alternative when it's not possible to wash your hands with soap and water, but it's important to know what to do if you accidentally get hand sanitizer in your eyes.
Why is it harmful to get hand sanitizer in your eyes? Most hand sanitizer products contain at least 60 percent alcohol--usually ethanol or isopropanol--which is what makes them so effective against viruses and bacteria. But when you get alcohol in your eyes, it burns and irritates.
Many hand sanitizer products also contain various plant oils, which can also irritate the eyes.
- Why is it harmful to get hand sanitizer in your eyes?
- But when you get alcohol in your eyes, it burns and irritates.
How to Treat
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If you get hand sanitizer in your eyes, your immediate goal is to dilute, then remove the alcohol. The antidote is copious amounts of lukewarm water: pour as much as possible across the surface of your eye for 10 to 15 minutes. (You can repeatedly pour from a glass, or use a gentle stream of running tap water.) Make sure the water's not too hot or too cold; it should feel comfortable on your eyes. The water needs to thoroughly rinse the surface of your eye, so remove contact lenses. It also needs to remove traces of alcohol from the mucous membranes inside your eyelids, so blink rapidly while pouring the water across your eye.
If the sanitizer is in only one eye, be careful not to contaminate the other eye. Keep the uninjured eye tightly closed, and tilt your head so the injured eye is downward.
If your eyes are still red, irritated or burning after treatment, consult your physician.
- If you get hand sanitizer in your eyes, your immediate goal is to dilute, then remove the alcohol.
- It also needs to remove traces of alcohol from the mucous membranes inside your eyelids, so blink rapidly while pouring the water across your eye.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Statement for Healthcare Personnel on Hand Hygiene during the Response to the International Emergence of COVID-19. Updated March 14, 2020.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chemical disinfectants. Updated September 18, 2016.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When and How to Wash Your Hands. Updated October 3, 2019.
- Vermeil T, Peters A, Kilpatrick C, Pires D, Allegranzi B, Pittet D. Hand hygiene in hospitals: anatomy of a revolution. J Hosp Infect. 2019;101(4):383-392. doi:10.1016/j.jhin.2018.09.003
- McEgan R, Danyluk MD. Evaluation of aqueous and alcohol-based quaternary ammonium sanitizers for inactivating Salmonella spp., Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Listeria monocytogenes on peanut and pistachio shells. Food Microbiol. 2015;47:93-98. doi:10.1016/j.fm.2014.11.010
- Inaida S, Shobugawa Y, Matsuno S, Saito R, Suzuki H. Delayed norovirus epidemic in the 2009-2010 season in Japan: potential relationship with intensive hand sanitizer use for pandemic influenza. Epidemiol Infect. 2016;144(12):2561-2567. doi:10.1017/S0950268816000984
- Stebbins S, Cummings DA, Stark JH, et al. Reduction in the incidence of influenza A but not influenza B associated with use of hand sanitizer and cough hygiene in schools: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2011;30(11):921-926. doi:10.1097/INF.0b013e3182218656
- Azor-Martinez E, Yui-Hifume R, Muñoz-Vico FJ, et al. Effectiveness of a hand hygiene program at child care centers: A cluster randomized trial. Pediatrics. 2018;142(5):e20181245. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-1245
- Blaney DD, Daly ER, Kirkland KB, Tongren JE, Kelso PT, Talbot EA. Use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers as a risk factor for norovirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities in northern New England: December 2006 to March 2007. Am J Infect Control. 2011;39(4):296-301. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2010.10.010
- Wilson AM, Reynolds KA, Jaykus LA, Escudero-Abarca B, Gerba CP. Comparison of estimated norovirus infection risk reductions for a single fomite contact scenario with residual and nonresidual hand sanitizers. Am J Infect Control. 2019;S0196-6553(19)30846-6. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2019.09.010
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Handwashing: Clean hands save lives. Updated January 14, 2020.
Kathryn Frandsen has 35 years of experience in communications, marketing and public relations. She is currently the managing editor at a small publishing company, has served as a congressional press secretary, and has filled writing and editing positions at a variety of major corporations. She majored in journalism and political science at Brigham Young University.