Graph of World Health Organization data on pure alcohol consumption per capita by country
In the 2010s, Russia's economy
suffered from a
financial crisis, depressed
oil prices, and
international sanctions put into place during the Ukrainian crisis.
 With less disposable income to spend, citizens were forced to take drastic measures. In 2017, for instance, approximately half of the country's population was growing fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet, caused in part by a doubling in food prices in the preceding two years.
For alcohol, these citizens—already one of the
highest consumers per capita in the world—turned to
surrogates, a cheaper but unregulated segment of the alcohol market.
 Russia's deputy prime minister remarked that such non-traditional alcohol made up twenty percent of the total consumed in the country,
 a figure backed up by independent reporting from the
Moscow Times, which noted that the total was still growing.
 Such a large consumption of unregulated alcohol led to a "regular occurrence" of alcohol poisonings, but the death toll in this single incident led the
Associated Press news agency to call it "unprecedented in its scale".
The bath lotion, or boyaryshnik, that caused the mass methanol poisoning was purchased as a drink because of its low price amid poor economic conditions—such liquids were not subject to the alcohol
excise tax, which had been increased as part of an anti-alcohol effort in 2009, or other restrictions placed in recent years to help curb alcohol consumption in the country.
 Although the bottles are typically half the size of traditional vodka, their alcohol content is such that they can be diluted into a strength similar to vodka. Moreover, they were often available from vending machines at any time of the night, while government-regulated liquor could only be sold within legally defined hours.
 The machines were often deliberately placed near poorer areas of Russian cities, where the product would be appealing to those seeking a cheaper alternative to regular alcohol.
 "Everybody knew that it was not bath oil," one individual told the New York Times after the poisoning. "That label was just meant to fend off the inspectors."
The fatal batch of lotion involved in this mass poisoning was made with
methanol (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol, CH3OH), which is
poisonous to the central nervous system and other parts of the body. Methanol is cheaper than ethanol (ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, CH3CH2OH), the alcohol found in vodka and other alcoholic drinks. The two alcohols are similar in many respects and cannot readily be distinguished. The contents differed from the labels on the bottles, which indicated that they contained ethanol
—specifically, "93 percent of ethyl alcohol,
diethyl phthalate and
According to early reports, a total of 57 people were hospitalized, with 49 dying.
 The victims were described as being poor residents of the Novo-Lenino neighborhood in Irkutsk, all between the ages of 35 and 50.
 Subsequent reports increased the number affected: first to 55 deaths (with a total of 94 affected),
 then 62 (with 107 affected),
 77 (number of affected not given),
 and finally down to 74. The other three had drank too much regular (ethyl) alcohol.
 One problem in attempting to treat these patients was that
fomepizole, a methanol
antidote, is not certified for use in Russia and is therefore not available in the country's hospitals.