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Possible – but extremely unlikely – hand sanitiser could start fire in car

This article is more than 3 years old

Several Facebook posts claim that alcohol-based hand sanitisers shouldn’t be left in a hot car because they could explode and start a fire. 

The rumour is not new, but seems to be circulating again as more people use hand sanitiser to prevent transmission of Covid-19.

The posts include videos and photos of burnt vehicles, with claims that the damage was caused by exploding sanitiser. But is that what they really show? And is it safe to keep a bottle of hand sanitiser in your car?

Unrelated incidents shared as false evidence

One video of a white BMW with South African licence plates has been widely shared. Its description reads: “Sanitizer left in the car parked in the sun, the container exploded the liquid sparked.”

In the video a man sprays water on the burning car with a garden hose. But the fire was not caused by hand sanitiser.

As local radio station Jacaranda FM reported, the owner of the car said claims the fire was caused by hand sanitiser were “not factual”, though the cause of the fire was unknown. 

The man’s neighbour, who filmed the video, clarified the incident in a Facebook post: “The car engine ignited and no one knows why. Definitely NOT HAND SANITISER”.

Possible sanitiser explosion unconfirmed

And a photo of what seems to be a badly burned car interior has been widely shared on Facebook and on Nigerian news blogs, also with the claim the fire was started by exploding sanitiser.

The photo was originally posted on Twitter by Raymond Muzembe, from London in the UK. He tweeted: “This image was a result of hand sanitiser being left in a hot vehicle. It’s flammable and at risk of exploding under certain conditions. Especially the pump type sanitisers.”  

Africa Check contacted Muzembe, who said he had not taken the photo. He is a health and safety consultant and the photo was sent to him in an incident report. 

“As far as I am aware the incident was genuine,” he told us. But he did not say how he knew the damage was caused by hand sanitiser.

No undisputed examples of claim

Muzembe also tweeted a CBS News report in which public safety officials in the US state of Texas warn that hand sanitiser “can cause a small explosion under the right circumstances”. The video includes a photo of a car door supposedly damaged by exploding hand sanitiser. 

But various sources have been unable to confirm the cause of the damage to the car, including Brazilian fact-checking organisation Estadão. And the US fire department that originally posted the photo has apologised for claiming the fire was started by hand sanitiser.

In their apology, they linked to a video by the US National Fire Protection Association titled “Hand sanitiser: A fire hazard?” The video explains that while the low flashpoint of alcohol-based sanitisers means they may catch fire at room temperature, they need an ignition source – a spark or flame – to do so.

In a blog post shared with the video, the NFPA explains: “While hand sanitiser gives off ignitable vapours at roughly room temperature or above, that vapour-air mixture still needs to be exposed to very high temperatures to ignite. A flame can do it. A hot car can't.”

Safety guidelines

Fact-checking organisation Full Fact found it was extremely unlikely that hand sanitiser would spontaneously ignite in a car. It said: “At temperatures below several hundred degrees Celsius, there would need to be a spark for alcoholic hand sanitisers to catch fire.”

The safety data sheet for Dettol hand sanitiser, a popular brand in South Africa, warns: “In a fire or if heated, a pressure increase will occur and the container may burst, with the risk of a subsequent explosion.” 

Recommended safety measures include advice to “store in original container protected from direct sunlight in a dry, cool and well-ventilated area” and keep it “away from heat, hot surfaces, sparks, open flames and other ignition sources”. But Dettol does not suggest that a hot car is enough to cause either an explosion or a fire.

As other fact-checkers have found, alcohol-based hand sanitiser would still need an ignition source, such a spark or flame, to catch alight. It’s probably safe to keep it in your car. 

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