Hand sanitizer exploding in cars turns out to be a myth — experts explain why

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — It’s a warning that scared a lot of folks around the country — fire officials said keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer a car during hot months would cause it to explode and destroy a car.

Turns out, it’s just a myth that is still spreading across the internet despite corrections made by those who posted the original erroneous information.

Hand sanitizer is flammable and burns quite easily if it’s ignited, but it can’t catch a car on fire if left inside the vehicle during a hot day, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Hand sanitizers use either ethyl or isopropyl alcohol as the basis for their formulas.

“These alcohols have a low flashpoint,” said Guy Colonna, who is the Director of Standards for NFPA.  “The flashpoint is the temperature at which the liquid begins to give off vapors.”

Colonna said for the alcohol used in sanitizers, the flashpoint is somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

He said something like a 10-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer is not enough to cause a fire as long as it’s a sealed container.  

Colonna says the container would need to be open, and have all the vapors from it collect in a small, confined area. Then, there would need to be something to ignite the collected vapors.

“You need an ignition source hot enough, like an open flame, or a spark, or something that is near 700, 800 degrees and that is not going to happen in a car,” he said.

Recently, a photo began making the rounds on social media, showing the burned interior of a car that supposedly caught fire from a bottle of exploding hand sanitizer.

The posts alleged the sanitizer spontaneously burst into flames because of the heat that built up inside the vehicle on a hot day.

The photo and explanation were even re-posted by fire departments and many reputable news agencies warning about the dangers of hand sanitizer in your car.

It turns out the photo originated in Brazil and had nothing to do with hand sanitizer.

After the NFPA said the information was incorrect, fire departments and news organizations worked to correct that misinformation — once they realized they’d been duped.

But even so, the original stories continue to make the rounds and are treated as “fact” by some.

The NFPA says the small quantities of hand sanitizer kept on desks or in homes are generally not an issue.

However, Colonna said, once you start storing large amounts, that can be an issue.

When the pandemic began, many places, like distilleries, began making sanitizer and places like hospitals began stockpiling large amounts of the stuff and Colonna said that stockpiling can be problematic.

“Once you move to 5-gallon containers and 55-gallon drums — now the problem increases because you’ve got a lot more vapors coming off, a lot more rapidly and doing it in a storage room not properly ventilated,” Colonna said.

Although the bottle on hand sanitizer in a car won’t explode, there is one issue with leaving it in a hot vehicle: The heat can actually change the properties of the alcohol, breaking it down and making it lose effectiveness over time.

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