Almost anywhere in the flu-and germ-phobic world we live in, is an accessible, free, and readily available form of alcohol: hand sanitizer. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are in the hallways of hospital rooms, at the end of bank lines, in schools, and at churches. The question is, why are rising numbers of people attempting to swill it like martinis?
Enormous Alcohol Content in Hand Sanitizer
The sanitation gel that adorns the outside of most hospital rooms has enough alcohol in it to easily get a person intoxicated, if they wished to travel this bizarre route to obliteration. The alcohol in the gels is necessary to provide antimicrobial effects, but exactly how much alcohol is contained in these gels?
To reach the level of alcohol needed to kill bacteria roaming around on tabletops and your hands or the hands of others who just left the bathroom without washing, sanitizing gels need to be comprised of more than 60 percent alcohol. Some sanitizers available in the U.K. reach the 78 percent mark in hopes of warding off Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), making for an enormous amount of alcohol in these ubiquitous hand gels.
These concentrations reach the 120 to 140 proof level, so a typical 44 milliliter shot of sanitizing hand gel surpasses the alcoholic content of a vodka shot and puts it on par with “new make” scotch and many forms of absinthe. Not quite Bacardi 151, but damn close and more than enough to get someone wasted. The dispensers usually hold 800 milliliters of sanitizing gel, so they contain more alcohol by volume than most bottles of liquor.
Why is There So Much Alcohol?
Alcohol is cheap, but it is also extremely effective in destroying bacteria and their remnants. Alcohol kills bacteria by breaking through their cell walls. The alcohol further denatures the protein within, rendering the proteins useless. Alcohol also kills fungi and viruses in a similar manner.
Polyacrylic acid is another major constituent of some hand sanitizers, but it is relatively harmless. The acid is used as a polymer to increase the thickness of hand sanitizer. However, it is considered toxic when used long-term in an industrial workplace setting due to remnants of benzene that can be present with the polyacrylic acid. Benzene is a small, organic compound that is known to cause cancer, but you are highly unlikely to become exposed to large amounts of benzene by drinking (or properly using) hand sanitizer.
Making a Hand Sanitizer Cocktail?
Out of journalistic curiosity, I tasted two different types of hand sanitizer: one “plain” variety and the other scented with peppermint. Both have a significant amount of bite and burn, with the peppermint-scented variety tastes of peppermint, too. I wouldn’t recommend either; both left a disgusting aftertaste, and I think I killed a few taste buds in the process.
While the gel likely tastes awful, patients looking for their fix have been known to mix the gel with fruit juice in order to mask the taste and make for a bizarre cocktail to complement their hospital brunch.
Adding table salt to the liquid hand sanitizer will result in separating the alcohol within, making for a potent solution of alcohol without the gel aftertaste. The salt solidifies the majority of the gel components, leaving a clear solution with an extremely high-alcohol content behind. Gentle heating can also be performed to “distill” out the alcohol, but this takes a lot more work and could destroy the gel in the process if too much heat is applied.
Medical experts warn against ingesting hand sanitizer, as it can result in similar symptoms as excessive drinking: loss of consciousness, vomiting and lack of impulse control. Further, going to the extraordinary trouble to experiment with ingesting a non-consumable cleansing agent in order to catch a buzz may be a sign of substance abuse issues.
Due to widespread abuse of the gel, many hospitals, public venues and concerned parents have moved to using a foam-based hand sanitizer, instead of a gel-based solution, as the foam version is much more difficult to drink.