Ethanol is widely used in all kinds of products with direct exposure to the human skin (e.g. medicinal products like hand disinfectants in occupational settings, cosmetics like hairsprays or mouthwashes, pharmaceutical preparations, and many household products). Contradictory evidence about the safety of such topical applications of the alcohol can be found in the scientific literature, yet an up-to-date risk assessment of ethanol application on the skin and inside the oral cavity is currently lacking.
The first and foremost concerns of topical ethanol applications for public health are its carcinogenic effects, as there is unambiguous evidence for the carcinogenicity of ethanol orally consumed in the form of alcoholic beverages. So far there is a lack of evidence to associate topical ethanol use with an increased risk of skin cancer. Limited and conflicting epidemiological evidence is available on the link between the use of ethanol in the oral cavity in the form of mouthwashes or mouthrinses and oral cancer. Some studies pointed to an increased risk of oral cancer due to locally produced acetaldehyde, operating via a similar mechanism to that found after alcoholic beverage ingestion.
In addition, topically applied ethanol acts as a skin penetration enhancer and may facilitate the transdermal absorption of xenobiotics (e.g. carcinogenic contaminants in cosmetic formulations). Ethanol use is associated with skin irritation or contact dermatitis, especially in humans with an aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) deficiency.
After regular application of ethanol on the skin (e.g. in the form of hand disinfectants) relatively low but measurable blood concentrations of ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde may occur, which are, however, below acute toxic levels. Only in children, especially through lacerated skin, can percutaneous toxicity occur.
As there might be industry bias in many studies about the safety of topical ethanol applications, as well as a general lack of scientific research on the long-term effects, there is a requirement for independent studies on this topic. The research focus should be set on the chronic toxic effects of ethanol and acetaldehyde at the point of impact, with special regard to children and individuals with genetic deficiencies in ethanol metabolism.