A few years ago, hardly anyone thought about hand sanitizer.
What to do with expired hand sanitizer was thought about even less. Here is the right way to dispose of your expired hand sanitizer.
Hand Sanitizer is a Hazardous Material
Because hand sanitizer has alcohol, it is considered a hazardous material. The FDA manages hazardous materials designations. FDA regulation requires an expiration date.
Hand sanitizer is a Class 3 Flammable Liquid. That means both EPA and OSHA rules apply to its disposal.
What rules apply depends on the amount of expired hand sanitizer.
One grouping is household use, which would be a few bottles. The other grouping is commercial use, which has a much more technical disposal process.
Fortunately, both agencies recognized that formal disposal processes for household amounts would be overkill.
For household amounts of hand sanitizer, the EPA recommends disposing of it in the garbage. That means there are no specific rules, provided the amount is small.
Why Hand Sanitizer Expires
The active ingredient in most hand sanitizers is alcohol. Alcohol evaporates quickly. Even containers designed to store alcohol are not airtight and have some alcohol evaporation.
As the alcohol dissipates in hand sanitizer, it becomes less and less effective.
Alcohol is used in hand sanitizer to kill germs. Once the advertised level of alcohol is no longer present, the hand sanitizer is compromised.
The compromise might seem minor. Per the FDA, though, hand sanitizer must have an expiration date based on that.
The rate of evaporation, however, is an educated guess on the part of the manufacturer.
An alcohol evaporation rate is calculated for each batch of hand sanitizer. The expiration date is when 10% or more alcohol is expected to have evaporated.
Once alcohol levels fall below 90% of the advertised amount, the sanitizer should be discarded.
For example, consider hand sanitizer with 70% alcohol. It will expire when 7% or more of the alcohol is calculated to have evaporated.
The calculation will have been done by the manufacturer. The corresponding date will be the expiration date for that unit.
Hand Sanitizer Lifespan
Typically, hand sanitizer has a shelf life of about 2 to 3 years in normal conditions. If the hand sanitizer is exposed to heat, it can degrade more rapidly.
There is a possibility that the hand sanitizer you bought sat on the shelf for an extended period. You should check the expiration date.
If it is less than a year away, you have three options:
- Buy another type of hand sanitizer
- Use the hand sanitizer before the expiration date
- If you have already purchased it, dispose of it
The Importance of Hand Sanitizer Storage
Effective hand sanitizer has 60% alcohol or more, per the CDC. The most effective range is between 60 and 90%.
That makes it, as mentioned, a Class 3 Flammable Liquid.
Per OSHA and the EPA, hand sanitizer cannot be stored in offices buildings at all.
There is a limit of 25 gallons of stored hand sanitizer. Anything more needs a flammable liquid storage container and cabinet.
This applies to even small containers of hand sanitizer.
That is important because some businesses and homeowners may have stockpiled hand sanitizer. If that is the case, stored hand sanitizer might not be safe.
Hot temperatures can also cause alcohol to dissipate at a higher-than-normal level. Evaporation means the hand sanitizer is not as potent as it was when it was purchased.
The threat of hand sanitizer igniting because of heat in a car or storage unit is remote. It does not ignite until temperatures reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you have left-hand sanitizer in your vehicle for an extended period, you should dispose of it.
Disposal of Unused or Expired Hand Sanitizer
As mentioned, there are two types of hand sanitizer use: Household and commercial. Each has different rules and expectations regarding disposal.
The ideal disposal process is through a local household hazardous waste collection facility. These are usually located by a dump or at specially designated areas like a fire station in various municipalities.
If you are unsure where to take expired hand sanitizer, check your municipality’s website. In some cases, for large amounts, the municipality will pick it up from you.
Fees for local disposal will be included on the municipality’s website.
In most cases, household amounts of hand sanitizer will be disposed of without additional cost.
There are, however, some rules regarding how hand sanitizer is delivered to the disposal station.
Rules can vary across municipalities, so anyone disposing of hand sanitizer should check first.
Collection containers must be closed with a properly fitting lid. The lid is to stay on the container. It can be removed to pour hand sanitizer into a receptacle.
Containers must be marked “Hazardous Material” and identify the material that is classified as hazardous.
For example, a hand sanitizer container would be marked “Hazardous Waste – Ethyl Alcohol.” The same applies to hand sanitizer made from isopropyl alcohol.
The container must be stored away from flammable materials, oxidizers, or other sources of ignition.
The total amount of hand sanitizer that can be dumped at one time is usually less than a gallon. Some municipalities have a limit of 5 gallons.
Anything more than that amount must be treated as commercial hazardous material.
Unofficial Household Disposal
For many, it is impractical to go through that process. The amount of hand sanitizer being disposed of makes it more work than is worth it. This is the case for most families.
Recognizing that, the EPA has said the following is permissible.
An individual can dispose of small amounts of hand sanitizer through regular garbage disposal processes.
That means that most household hand sanitizer can be thrown out with regular garbage.
The container must have a properly fitting lid. If it is a pump lid, it should be in the locked position.
If the pump does not lock, transferring the hand sanitizer to a more appropriate container is recommended.
The one thing no one should ever do with expired hand sanitizer is dump it down the drain. This can poison water supplies, affect wildlife, etc.
If You Are Unsure
Some homeowners stockpiled hand sanitizer that is not approaching its expiration date. In that case, how to proceed might be confusing.
If the amount of hand sanitizer you have exceeds the amount limits, you have some options.
- Follow the rules for more formal disposal
- Break up the disposal over multiple trips to the disposal facility
- Transfer the hand sanitizer into smaller containers and use regular garbage.
If you opt for the last alternative, limit disposal to two containers per garbage bag.
Container size should be small – up to 3 or 4 ounces maximum.
If you have copious amounts of expired hand sanitizer, go the more formal disposal route.
Most hazardous materials disposal at the commercial level have pre-set processes and rules. Those processes and rules are applied across all hazardous materials.
The reason for this is safety and ensuring the environment does not get exposed to hand sanitizer.
This is because:
- Chemicals in hand sanitizer can make humans and animals sick
- Chemicals in hand sanitizer can kill plants if exposure is severe
- Improper disposal can result in hand sanitizer leeching into the local water supply
- If the amount disposed of is huge, it can pose a flammable liquid threat
- Pooled hand sanitizer in large amounts can create an explosive threat
If you are not familiar with hazardous materials disposal at the commercial level, call for help. One source is your state’s environmental protection department.
You should not guess or take a chance with improper disposal. If you are caught improperly disposing of hand sanitizer (or any hazardous material,) you can:
- Face license and certification suspension
- Have company and personal fines imposed
- Be on the hook for hazard mitigation
- Face jail time
One More Complication
Some companies have gotten in trouble for using methanol and 1-propanol in their hand sanitizer.
This poses unique disposal challenges because both are:
Both not only can make animals and plants sick, but each can also be lethal.
Because of that, disposal in almost all cases should follow the formal hazardous materials protocol.
If you have hand sanitizer with either, first stop using them. Both are highly toxic and can damage the skin on contact.
Then, call your local poison control to find out how to have them removed.
Disposal of expired hand sanitizer for most is a matter of throwing it in the garbage.
If you have more than normal, though, this advice can keep you compliant and safe.
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