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.
How to Treat
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.