More than half of hand sanitisers lie about alcohol content — so make your own

Despite previous warnings from product standards bodies and researchers, many hand sanitisers used to help curb the spread of Covid-19 still do not contain the amount of alcohol needed to neutralise the virus.

That is according to a study carried out by professor Yusuf Abdullahi Ahmed of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Zoology and Entomology, which was recently published in the South African Journal of Science.

“Most of the commercial alcohol-based products sold and made available to consumers in public places are sub-standard and do not contain the required amount of alcohol to be classified as effective virucides, especially against SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of Covid-19,” Ahmed stated.

Ahmed analysed 50 commercially available liquid and gel-based hand sanitisers and found the vast majority fell short of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) recommendation on alcohol content.

WHO recommends that alcohol-based hand rubs (ABHRs) contain at least 70% alcohol for effective and fast anti-microbial activity — and stop the spread of Covid-19.

The sanitisers Ahmed tested were bought from stores, sampled from hand sanitising points at public places in and around Pretoria, or home and lab-made hand rubs based on WHO recommendations.

All-in-all, 38 of the sanitisers were liquids, 11 were gels, and one was a spray-based formulation.

These were sampled directly from their containers and collected in 1.5ml sterile Eppendorf tubes.

Ahmed then used a direct gas chromatographic method to determine the alcohol composition of the sanitisers.

He found only 14 of the sanitisers had 75% or more alcohol, while only 21 exceeded the WHO’s recommendation of 70%.

Interestingly, 63% of the homemade sanitisers contained 75% or more alcohol compared to only 21% of the off-the-shelf options.

Making your own hand sanitisers according to the WHO’s guidelines could prove to be more effective than buying from a store.

47 of the hand sanitisers had labels that showed which type of alcohol they contained, but only 29 stated their alcohol composition.

Sixteen of these did not contain the amount of alcohol as declared on their labels.

One of the hand sanitisers, which used isopropanol as its main ingredient, contained 99% alcohol, far exceeding the recommended 70±5% for isopropanol-based sanitisers.

Another notable finding was that 47 of the sanitisers contained ethanol, two had isopropanol, and one used a combination of ethanol and isobutanol.

The threshold for effectivity against coronaviruses for ethanol and isopropanol is 80% and 75%, respectively.

The table below shows the results of Ahmed’s analysis.

Ahmed’s findings correlate with previous studies, which found a proliferation of fake or weak hand sanitisers in South Africa.

He said the incorrect labelling and declaration of contents for ABHRs infringe on consumer rights and are in contravention of the South African Consumer Protection Act.

More worryingly, the presence of products that do not qualify as ABHRs, and were not appropriately labelled, posed a great risk to consumers in the wake of preventative measures against Covid-19.

“Using sub-standard products exposes the population unknowingly to the virus by increasing the chances of transmission through contaminated surfaces,” Ahmed stated.

“There is, therefore, a need to put in place quality control measures, especially at the manufacturing, wholesale and retail levels, to ensure that the consumer gets good-quality ABHRs that qualify as virucides, and which are appropriately labelled.”

“Added to this is the need to test ABHRs and any product sold as such for its virucidal effect to confirm its efficacy.”

He recommended that, in the absence of appropriate quality control measures, consumers use the WHO guide for local formulations to prepare their own hand sanitisers as a better alternative to purchasing off-the-shelf products that are mostly sub-standard.

The South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) also applies strict conditions for sanitisers to get its stamp of approval.

It is essential to be aware that some sanitisers have falsely claimed SABS approval in the past, so you should consult its official list of approved manufacturers before making a purchase.

The image below shows the information that needs to be displayed on the hand sanitiser’s bottle.


Now read: South Africa’s 3 big coronavirus vaccination mistakes

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More than half of hand sanitisers lie about alcohol content — so make your own