FACT CHECK: Hand sanitizer won't spontaneously explode in your car, but it could do this

Dan Weinbaum
May 26, 2020 - 1:20 pm
Close-up driver washing hands with alcohol gel to prevent infection coronavirus covid-19.

Getty / JaruekChairak

Kansas City, MO - One of the strangest items to take off like wildfire (pardon the pun) across social media recently is the notion that hand sanitizer left in a car could spontaneously combust.

Lots of us are taking hand sanitizer with us due to the coronavirus pandemic and keeping some in our vehicles for a quick squirt before getting out of the car or getting back in from a trip to the grocery store.

This latest viral 'thing' was begun by a fire department in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin which shared on Facebook an image of the interior of a car door that had been burned and mentioned hand sanitizer in the post.

So, of course that exploded quickly.  Numerous stories were generated in newsrooms across the country about the dangers of keeping hand sanitizer in cars.

Turns out... an explosion is not exactly a thing that will happen.  Oh, unless the interior of your car reaches about 700°.  If your car ever got that hot, you've got other things to think about.

As Poynter.org points out in #4 of a fact-check earlier this month, the idea of hand sanitizer exploding in a car is a bit of a hoax.
 


 

According to the National Fire Protection Association, which writes in the comment section of a recent YouTube video on the subject of hand sanitizer fire safety"Hand sanitizer is not subject to self-heating and would require temperatures to reach over 700 degrees Fahrenheit to spontaneously combust."

Fire safety considerations for hand sanitizer


That Wisconsin fire department has since pulled its original post, and apologized for the, er, confusion. 

What they say they had meant to do "was to illustrate a door fire resulting from contact with open flame which was the center of our post."
 


 

So where did this whole idea come from?  The original image may have come from Brazil, and it all may have been a conflation of non-related events dating back to 2015. 

According to Snopes.com:

"In April 2020, a series of photographs ... supposedly showed the aftermath of a car fire caused by an unattended bottle of hand sanitizer.  These posts, many of which were written in Portuguese, urged people to be cautious about leaving hand sanitizer in their cars because, they claimed, it can spontaneously combust."

 

But, what could happen if you leave sanitizer in your vehicle is... it could lose potency, as alcoholic vapors evaporate. 

As reported by a Ft. Myers TV station, a Florida Gulf Coast University department of chemistry and physics associate professor said hand sanitizer should not be kept in a car for more than a few hours or it begins to lose it's effectiveness.

 

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