Gel packs are fantastic for keeping food cold in a cooler and for icing down injuries when no ice is available. But what happens when the gel pack tears or is punctured? The gel inside is not safe to put on skin or to have around food.
Gel Pack Contents
Gel packs are made of heavy-duty plastic filled with a gel that won't freeze in cold temperatures. The gel is durable and will reach a freezing temperature, just as ice will, but will not freeze into a solid form. The gel is usually a non-toxic substance that will not turn into a liquid, so even if the package is punctured, it will not mix in with any foods in a cooler. The makeup of the gel is usually hydroxyethyl cellulose or vinyl-coated silica gel.
Gel packs are generally safe. The problem you may encounter is that the gel can be harmful if it leaks out, depending on the type of gel. Most gel packs have a warning label that informs the user whether or not the contents are hazardous when outside of the original packaging. The contents should not purposely be removed from the plastic container, nor should the contents ever be ingested.
Safety for Injuries
Some gel packs have labels warning the user that a sheet or towel should be used between the surface of the gel pack and the surface of the patient's skin, if the gel pack will be used to treat an injury. The gel gets extremely cold after being in the freezer for a few hours, so if applied directly to exposed skin, the exposure could result in frostbite after a set amount of time.
Users should not keep a gel pack that has sprung a leak, nor should they make an attempt to repair a punctured gel pack. Gel packs are not expensive, so it's easier to purchase a new one than to try to repair the old one and risk getting hurt. Athletes using the gel packs to treat injuries should be aware of how long they keep a gel pack on the injured site. It's best to only keep the gel pack on the injured area for 15 minutes. If kept on longer, frostbite may result.
An obvious alternative to gel packs are bags of ice, which can reduce swelling or keep food cool. Another alternative is a bag of frozen vegetables. Frozen peas work well as an ice pack for injury, as the peas conform to the injured area and can be held in place by wrapping a bandage around the bag.
Ice is a safe alternative to gel paks. Since ice melts, any leak will soak clothing and other fabrics. Like gel packs, ice should not be left on bare skin for an extended periods of time.