Handwashing and sanitizing are among the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the seasonal flu and other contagious diseases. However, the omnipresence of alcohol-based hand sanitizer dispensers in public spaces has spun off into an unforeseen hazard: eye injuries in children.

In a study of accidental eye exposures to alcohol-based hand sanitizers before and after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a team of French researchers found a sevenfold increase in pediatric exposures to hand sanitizers April 1 through August 24, 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Corneal and/or conjunctival ulcers increased right along with these exposures, and two severe injury cases required amniotic membrane transplants.

The most common place these injuries occurred was in public places where, the researchers concluded, sanitizer dispensers were often placed at children’s eye level. Children using these dispensers can accidentally squirt or splatter the gel into their eyes. Plus, children are inclined to rub their eyes, raising the risk of depositing unevaporated sanitizer gel into the eye. 

While hand sanitizer is not considered caustic, it is an irritant, particularly to sensitive areas like the eye. The alcohol mixed with the gel can even result in corneal or conjunctival ulcers if the amount and exposure time are excessive. Symptoms that may occur when alcohol-based sanitizer enters the eye include:

  • Pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Excessive tearing
  • Redness
  • Corneal discharge
  • Severe light sensitivity

Parents, teachers and businesses can follow simple guidelines to reduce the risk of exposure.

For parents and teachers:

Regularly check the pump on your hand sanitizer to ensure that no gel has clogged the opening; a clog can cause the gel to splatter. You can easily clear a clog by running the pump under warm water until it dissolves or dislodges. 

Explain to children the risks that come with hand sanitizers and show them how to use them safely: 

  • Place hand(s) close to the dispenser but not against the dispenser.
  • Press the pump slowly until there is a quarter-sized dollop in the palm of the hand.
  • Rub palms together, then between fingers, on the backs of the hands and around the thumb until the sanitizers has evaporated.
  • Do not rub eyes, even after hands are dry.

If sanitizer gel does get into the eye, flush the eye with copious amounts of lukewarm water for at least 10 minutes. A kitchen faucet that isn’t pressurized or aerated is ideal.

For businesses:

  • Consider providing movable bottles of sanitizer rather than a stationary dispenser, so parents can raise or lower the pump away from a child’s eye level. If that’s not practical, lower the existing dispenser.
  • Regularly clean the dispensing pump with warm water to dissolve any gel clogs.
  • Place a placard with safety instructions near the dispenser ….
  • Or give customers disposable hand wipes instead.
  • Have an eyewash station on site and be willing to make it available to customers when needed.

When used safely, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a highly effective tool against viruses and germs. Just make sure children can use them safely without injury risk.

Matossian Eye Associates has a skilled team of doctors available to help in cases of eye injury or infection. Schedule an appointment with an eye doctor at your convenience by calling us at (800) 708-8800 or through our website at MatossianEye.com.