The question of whether hand sanitizer could combust came to light after a tragic case of a Portland girl who experienced terrible burns while in the hospital. Her hospital gown was set ablaze after a "perfect storm" of an alcohol based hand sanitizer was ignited by static electricity and fed by olive oil. So does this mean ditch the sanitizer? Despite this case, the answer is no.
Think of this fire much like you would the warnings you see about static electricity at the gas station. While fires are rare, static electricity can cause a blaze. Despite this we don't stop pumping gas, because we need it. Well, we need that hand sanitizer to ward off dangerous infections.
The story of the little 11-year old cancer survivor in Portland unfolded like this. After undergoing an EEG test, where olive oil is used to clean up the glue left where they attached sensors to her head, some of the oil made its way on to the girls shirt. The little girl apparently tried to clean up with the hand sanitizer on hand.
State fire officials believe what may have happened next is while playing in bed and rubbing and moving sheets around static electricity may have ignited the blaze, ultimately sending the girl to the burn unit. And while it sounds bizarre, it isn't the only time this has happened. A Popular Science article notes the CDC recorded cases in 2002 and 2006 where a combination of hand sanitizer and static from gowns and other activities have caused ignition with health workers.
A quick search on the Internet brings up a few other cases along with actual instructions on how to use hand sanitizers for "fire projects" and starting campfires. Clearly the alcohol has more than one purpose.
A CDC report is quick to point out however, that the benefits of using hand sanitisers far, far outweigh the risk of it combusting from static. The report notes that for some 2 million hospital patients each year, about one in 20 will get an infection. Those odds of getting sick are much higher than catching on fire. Considering the sanitizers kill 99 percent of pathogens you might come in contact with, it's better to kill the critters than being afraid of randomly killing yourself with a hand sanitizer.
Given recent events however, some changes are being made at the hospital where the girl suffered the fire. Olive oil will no longer be used for EEG clean up, and they are taking a look at where the sanitizers are placed.
As for the rest of us the advice is simple - especially during this crazy cold and flu season. Go ahead and use the hand sanitizer, but as the Mark Bruley of the ECRI Institute, a non-profit focused on improving health care safety notes in Popular Science, use a minimal amount and rub it in your hands until the substance evaporates.
Plus, it's safe to say avoid anything that might give off static electricity when you are cleaning those hands. It's like that doorknob in Office Space… it you know it's going to shock you it's probably better to stay away from it after using the hand sanitizer.