The bath lotion, or boyaryshnik, was purchased as a drink because of its low price amid
extreme economic conditions; such liquids are not subject to the alcohol
excise tax and 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 can be twice as high or more (going up to 95% alcohol) and are often available at any time of the night, thanks to vending machines.
 These 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.
Purchases of surrogate alcohol, which has existed for decades, had been on the rise as Russia's economy
suffered from the
Great Recession followed by depressed
oil prices and
international sanctions put into place during the Ukrainian crisis.
 In particular, food prices approximately doubled in the two years prior to the poisoning, as as of 2017 approximately half of the Russian population was growing fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet. Moreover, the Irkutsk region's
life expectancy is 67, 10 less than Moscow.
 Russia's deputy prime minister remarked before this incident that such non-traditional alcohol made up 20% of the total alcohol consumed in the country,
 a figure backed up by independent reporting, which noted that the total was still growing.
 As such, alcohol poisonings in the country are not infrequent, but the death toll in this incident led the Associated Press to call it "unprecedented in its scale".
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 the alcohol found in vodka and other alcoholic drinks, ethanol (ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, CH3CH2OH). 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 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.