INVESTIGATION | Your hand sanitiser might not be keeping you as safe as you think
If tests on a sample of hand sanitisers conducted by a private, accredited laboratory in KwaZulu-Natal are anything to go by, almost half are not complying with the government’s regulation that alcohol-based hand sanitisers must contain no less than 70% alcohol.
After being confronted with the results, one company said it would remix the bottles and donate them to charity.
One of the products that did not meet the required standards was used to sanitise shoppers’ hands at a clothing store.
Among those that met the requirements were Woolworths’ own brand and sanitisers supplied to Pick n Pay and Dis-Chem.
A microbiologist has warned that sanitisers not meeting the required standards could result in a serious public health threat during this pandemic.
The sample of 11 hand sanitisers was tested by SciCorp Laboratories in May: nine of them were bought from retail stores in the Pietermaritzburg area and two were samples of sanitiser sprayed on customer’s hands at store or mall entrances.
The lab is accredited by the SA National Accreditation System (Sanas).
The regulations published in the government gazette at the end of April state that hand sanitisers must contain at least 70% alcohol, as recommended by the department of health, and most hand sanitisers on the market carry label claims to that effect.
The lab tested for three forms of alcohol: ethanol, propanol and isopropanol. All but one of the store-bought samples claimed to contain more than 70% alcohol; one made no claim at all.
Five of the 11 samples were found to contain less than 70% alcohol.
The worst offenders were M3 liquid sanitiser spray, with a label saying “70% alcohol”, but found to contain just 46.3% ethanol, and Clean Hands Tea Tree Oil-infused sanitiser, which was found to contain just 54.9% propanol, while saying to contain 85% alcohol.
Both products were bought from the Mills SuperSpar.
Sebastian Ridley, of SebSmith Trading, which distributed the M3 product, said the product had not been supplied to many stores, but would be uplifted.
M3 Manufacturing, the product producer, said the company had bottled the red liquid for the local market when an international order fell through.
“Just before our March lockdown, the World Health Organisation recommended that all sanitisers be manufactured to a specification of 70%. Since then, we have manufactured gel and liquid at 70% ethanol for Mr Price, Sheet Street, Shoprite and many more,” said the company.
“We are an ISO 9001/2015 accredited company and would not jeopardise our company’s creditability by manufacturing a substandard product and we would definitely not manufacture anything different from what our label stipulates.
“We will be doing our own testing investigation.”
Arthur Stamatis of Clean Hands said on receiving the lab result he immediately contacted the stores the company had supplied and asked them to remove any remaining stock from their shelves.
“We will remix this recalled sanitiser and get the alcohol content up to the correct standard and then donate it to a charitable organisation,” he said.
Stamatis said his company preferred to use ethanol in its hand sanitiser, but in the week before lockdown, when demand for hand sanitiser soared, his usual supplier couldn’t supply it.
“So we outsourced to a new, reputable supplier for the first time and took it in good faith that it was up to the standard specified,” he said.
“We paid almost double per litre than what it was costing for us to blend our own, so it was in no way a cheap option.”
The other three products in the test sample had between 60% and 70% alcohol:
- The sanitiser sprayed on customers’ hands at the entrance to Mr Price Home in Liberty Mall contained 66.5% ethanol;
- Oh So Heavenly 2-in-1 hygiene waterless hand cleanser had 65.3% ethanol; and
- A product labelled simply Hand Sanitiser, and sold at a pharmacy, had 63% alcohol.
“Our biggest concern scientifically is what people are adding to products when there is less alcohol,” says SciCorp Laboratories’ business development director Adrian Barnard.
“Best case scenario is that it is just watered down; worst case it contains the likes of formalin or methanol methylated spirits.”
In recent weeks, the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has publicly named and shamed several hand-sanitiser products which have been found to contain methanol, which can be toxic when absorbed through the skin.
On Monday, the FDA added five more brands to the list.
Barnard said SciCorp did not test the 11 samples for methanol in May due to budget constraints, as separate tests had to be run for each ingredient.
“But we are in the process of acquiring advanced equipment from Germany which will test the full spectrum at once,” he said.
Oh So Heavenly’s Lauren Jenkins said the company had until the end of April this year produced 60% alcohol hand “cleansers”, in line with the US’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations, but upped that to 70% from May to comply with SA government regulations relating to Covid-19, relabelling their “Waterless Hand Cleanser” as “Waterless Hand Sanitiser”.
“All of our Waterless Hand Sanitisers produced after 1 May 2020 include 70% alcohol,” she said, apart from a 60% alcohol “cleanser” marketed for use by children.
The Oh So Heavenly sample tested by SciCorp, labelled “waterless hand cleanser” did not declare its alcohol content and was bought from a Clicks branch in Pietermaritzburg on May 6, presumably before the new stock of 70% sanitiser arriving in store.
The hand sanitiser bought from AlphaPharm, containing 63% ethanol, was supplied by a woman who gave her name as “Sheila”.
She said she worked alone and bought the product from a reputable supplier who claimed it contained at least 70% alcohol.
“I decanted that stock and sold the bottles to just two stores in Pietermaritzburg, but I stopped long ago.”
Mr Price did not respond to TimesLIVE’s query.
Asked to comment on the results, Du Toit Volschenk, the South African Bureau of Standards’ (SABS) GM of food and health testing, said the product not matching the label in terms of alcohol content could be attributed to a number of factors, including “the type of container and seal, which can have an effect on the product, especially as alcohol is a volatile compound”.
“Testing of one sample from a factory is generally insufficient to draw a conclusion on the ongoing compliance of the product,” he said.
“However, if there is a problem with a key ingredient, it can cast serious doubt on the quality of the product.”
The SABS recommends that manufacturers have their products certified, he said.
“Certification against the SABS Approved Mark Scheme provides peace of mind to consumers that products have been tested by SABS and that the production and management processes of the manufacturer are assessed on an ongoing basis and meet quality criteria.”
But this process is rigorous and takes more than six months to complete “in an ideal situation”, the SABS said.
Barnard said in reality that process takes at least twice that long.
“We work with multiple companies applying for SABS certification. Most wait well over a year and, in one case, the company has been waiting for 18 months.
“The coronavirus has only been with us for four months.”
That may explain why, by late June, the SABS had issued 13 “cease-and-desist” letters relating to mark infringement on sanitisers.
Pretoria-based microbiologist Dr Lucia Anelich said while the SABS standard for alcohol-based hand rubs — SANS 490:2013 — is the very least that businesses supplying these products should comply with, it remains a voluntary standard.
“The only way to ensure compliance is to make a relevant standard or standards mandatory under the NRCS Act,” she said.
“This can be done relatively quickly through a government gazette. The DTI should elevate this to a level of utmost urgency, as products containing less than 60% alcohol, which is the international norm, may not be effective to kill SARS-CoV-2, which, in turn, can result in a serious public health threat during this pandemic.”
While the WHO and the SA government have chosen 70% as the alcohol requirement for hand sanitisers to be effective against the coronavirus, the CDC recommends that alcohol-based “hand rubs” must have at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol to do the job.
To identify SABS-approved products, a list of manufacturers is provided here.