Hand sanitizers affect alcohol tests

U. FLORIDA (US) — Frequent use of hand sanitizers can cause a false positive result on certain types of tests that screen for alcohol use.

The findings, published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, are particularly significant for people who use hand sanitizers frequently, such as health professionals, who also may be tested frequently for alcohol use.

“Many of the hand sanitizers contain ethyl alcohol, which is the same type of alcohol in alcoholic beverages,” says Gary Reisfield, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida. “The body does not distinguish between drinking alcohol and handwash alcohol.

“Anyone out there who is required to abstain from alcohol needs to be very cognizant about alcohol that may be hidden in products such as handwashing gels, mouthwashes, hairsprays and cosmetics,” he adds. “You need to be careful not just what you put in your body but what you put on your body.”

New research has uncovered a potential biomarker that could allow tests to differentiate between drinking alcohol and exposure to hand sanitizers and other household products.

Although blood and breath tests are more commonly used to detect the presence of alcohol in the bloodstream, they only detect what a person drank recently, Reisfield says. Another type of test, called an EtG, measures the level of substances left behind after alcohol is metabolized and can detect use over a longer period of time.

The investigators examined 11 subjects with no history of alcohol use, looking to see how frequent use of hand sanitizer affected the levels of ethyl glucuronide and ethyl sulfate in their urine.

Study participants used hand sanitizer every five minutes for a 10-hour period for three days in a row, which Reisfield says is similar to what nurses are exposed to while on duty. Their urine was tested at the end of each day and before the start of a new day.

“What we found was nearly all the individuals produced alcohol metabolites consistent with drinking alcohol,” Reisfield said.

When comparing the levels of ethyl glucuronide and ethyl sulfate in the urine of people who used a lot of sanitizer with people who drank alcohol, the researchers also noticed that the level of ethyl sulfate was much lower in the sanitizer group, not coming close to the cutoffs used to indicate alcohol use.

Reisfield says looking at ethyl sulfate could help laboratories more accurately pinpoint alcohol use.

“We will be looking at this further in subsequent studies,” he adds. “Ethyl sulfate may be a critical biomarker that has not been looked at in great detail. It may help distinguish between the exposures.

“We really cannot tolerate false positives,” he says. “Falsely accusing someone of alcohol abuse can have potentially devastating effects personally and occupationally.”

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