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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Family Fundamentals: With children, watch out for 'pretty poisons' (for July 2007)

July 16, 2007

I have heard that hand sanitizers can be poisonous for young children. Is that true?

Most hand sanitizers work because they contain a significant amount of ethyl alcohol, so they do pose a risk of alcohol poisoning to children if enough is ingested. They are meant to be used only on hands, not internally. But kids may not understand that, and there have been cases where children have consumed enough alcohol from hand sanitizers to become intoxicated. All recovered completely, but any type of alcohol ingestion in children is risky.

While they are an effective tool against germs, hand sanitizers could be classified as a "pretty poison" -- a poisonous substance that children might confuse as a consumable product, especially if they are scented so they smell good enough to eat. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, about half of the 2 million poison exposures each year occur in children under the age of 6. The most common substances responsible for those exposures are cosmetics and personal care products (13.4 percent), cleaning substances (9.8 percent) and analgesics (8.2 percent).

Obviously, hand sanitizers aren't the only culprits. Disinfectants can look like juice or soda pop. Vitamins, antacids and pain relievers can look like mints, gum or candy. Moth balls can look like marshmallows. Glue sticks can look like lip balm.

This doesn't mean families with young children should never use any of these products. Rather, we simply need to be aware of the potential risks and take steps to keep children out of harm's way.

Guidance from health professionals and poison control centers includes:

Family Fundamentals is a monthly column on family issues. It is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Family Fundamentals, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1044, or

Dear Subscriber: This column was reviewed by family and consumer science educators Carol Chandler, with OSU Extension in Union County, and Kathy Dodrill, with OSU Extension in Washington County.

  • Store items that pose a risk in their original containers, and store them out of reach. Even child-resistant containers aren't child-proof.
  • Never call medicine "candy" or pretend you take medicine because it tastes good. Refrain from taking medicine in front of small children to limit the chance they'll copy your behavior.
  • Signs of poisoning in children include an unusual, sudden onset of sleepiness; inability to follow you with their eyes; eyes going around in circles; burns or stains around the mouth; or strange bad breath.
  • If you suspect poisoning and your child is still conscious, call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222. This is a national toll-free number that will automatically connect you to a nearby regional center. (In Ohio, poison control centers are located in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.) If you are told to go to the emergency room, take the product with you. If your child is unconscious, call 911.
Martha Filipic
Kathy Dodrill, Carol Chandler