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Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy April 3, 2020

Don’t let this Facebook post scare you: Hand sanitizer is flammable, but safe when used correctly

If Your Time is short

  • This Facebook post has the ingredients of a hoax. We could not find the original photo through reverse image searching, and we found no news reports about it.

  • Hand sanitizer is flammable because of its alcohol content. But the fire risks are low when the product is applied properly and given time to dry.

Public health officials say one of the best ways to avoid catching the coronavirus is to wash your hands with soap and water or, when that’s not an option, rub them with hand sanitizer.

But some Facebook users are sharing posts saying hand sanitizer can be dangerous.

"This lady here applied sanitizer to her hands/forearms & went to the kitchen to cook," said a March 23 Facebook post showing the arms of a burn victim. "The moment she turned on the gas stove, her hands caught fire due to the alcohol contained in the sanitizer." 

"Y'all please be careful!" the post warned.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

RELATED: Hand sanitizer can be used to prevent coronavirus infection

We found no credible news reports detailing the incident in question, which fact-checkers in India said was a hoax. Medical experts told us that while hand sanitizer is flammable, the fire risks largely disappear when the sanitizer is applied properly and given time to dry.

Did a woman get burned because of her hand sanitizer?

We can’t say for sure that the Facebook post doesn’t show a woman whose arms were burned from a hand sanitizer-induced flame. The post has the ingredients of a hoax, however.

For starters, we were unable to identify the original source of the photo through reverse image searches on Google, TinEye and Yandex. Our searches on Google and Nexis for related news reports also turned up no results, whereas other sanitizer mishaps have been widely covered.

Fact-checkers in India and online bloggers suggested the wounds in the photo were the result of skin grafting, a surgical procedure in which healthy skin is transplanted onto a new part of the body.

But Andrew Vardanian, assistant clinical professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UCLA and a plastic surgeon at UCLA Health, told us the image looked to him like a second-degree burn — and likely not one that came from hand sanitizer.

"The straight line on the left arm is too straight for this to have happened from hand sanitizer, he said. "It is more consistent with a submersion type burn into something that caused a scald."

Hand sanitizer is flammable, but proper use lowers the risk

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are flammable, which is why the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, the World Health Organization and major manufacturers like Purell all offer fire safety warnings for use. Travelers typically can’t carry large amounts on planes.

But while bottles and dispensers of hand sanitizer are recommended to be stored away from flames, the CDC and the WHO both say the incidence of fire from use is "very low." A WHO webpage says that the benefits "in terms of infection prevention far outweigh the fire risks."

Proper application and use mitigates the fire risks, experts told us.

"The directions for alcohol based sanitizers often state to rub it into your hands until they are dry, which would reduce the fire risk because the flammable liquid and vapors would evaporate," said Jeffrey Gardner, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Once a person’s hands are dry, the fire risk would dramatically decrease."

"If properly applied with hands rubbed together until the liquid evaporates, it shouldn't burst into flame," added Michael Gochfeld, professor emeritus of clinical research and occupational medicine at Rutgers University. 

It takes about 20 seconds of rubbing for hand sanitizer to fully dry on your hands, according to the CDC and the WHO

Vardanian said surgeons often use flammable products to sterilize the skin before surgery, but he said "we wait for a few minutes until we start draping to prevent these types of injuries."

"If someone used massive amounts of hand sanitizer and then contacted a flame, there may be a fire and a burn can result from this," he said of the Facebook post. "This would, however, be very rare as most of the sanitizer would evaporate before flame contact."

Our ruling

A Facebook post said: "This lady here applied sanitizer to her hands/forearms & went to the kitchen to cook. The moment she turned on the gas stove, her hands caught fire due to the alcohol contained in the sanitizer."

We ran reverse image searches and checked news databases, and we found no credible evidence that the incident in question actually took place. 

Hand sanitizer is flammable, but medical experts told us that the fire risks are low because the alcohol in hand sanitizer evaporates quickly when the product is given enough time to dry.

We rate this statement False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, March 23, 2020

Various reverse image searches on Google, TinEye and Yandex, April 1, 2020

Various searches on Google and Nexis, April 1, 2020

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Safely Using Hand Sanitizer," accessed April 1, 2020

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Q&A for Consumers: Hand Sanitizers and COVID-19," accessed April 1, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Fire Safety and Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer (ABHS)," accessed April 1, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Handwashing and Hand Sanitizer Use at Home, at Play, and Out and About," accessed April 1, 2020

The World Health Organization, "Alcohol-Based Handrub Risks/Hazards," accessed April 1, 2020

Safety Data Sheet, "PURELL® Advanced Hand Sanitizer Refreshing Gel," Feb. 10, 2015

Safety Data Sheet, "PURELL® Advanced Hand Sanitizer Gel," Feb. 10, 2015

Federal Aviation Administration, "Flammability Test of Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer," August 2010

The World Health Organization, "WHO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care," 2009

ANI on Twitter, March 30, 2020

Yahoo News, "Hand Sanitizers Highly Inflammable, Don't Use Near Fire, Advises Doctor as Man Admitted With Burn Injuries After Using Alcohol-Based Liquid Near Cooking Gas," March 30, 2020

The Statesman, "Man suffers burns in Haryana; doctors say use alcohol-based sanitizer wisely," March 30, 2020

India Today, "Fact Check: Do you risk burning your hands after applying sanitisers?" March 24, 2020

The New York Post, "Woman allegedly turns bottle of hand sanitizer into Molotov cocktail, sparks fatal blaze," March 11, 2020

CNN, "Police seize likely homemade sanitizer from a 7-Eleven after a young boy was allegedly burned by it," March 11, 2020

Snopes, "Purell Hand Sanitizer Warning," Jan. 25, 2007

PolitiFact, "Hand sanitizer can be used to prevent coronavirus infection," March 3, 2020

Email interview with Jeffrey Gardner, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, April 1, 2020

Email interview with Andrew Vardanian, assistant clinical professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UCLA and a plastic surgeon at UCLA Health, April 1, 2020

Email interview with Michael Gochfeld, professor emeritus of clinical research and occupational medicine at Rutgers University, April 2, 2020

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Don’t let this Facebook post scare you: Hand sanitizer is flammable, but safe when used correctly

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