Clearing up confusion over hand sanitisers

11 May 2020 | 4 mins

The need to wash our hands during the COVID-19 crisis has led to unprecedented demand for hand sanitiser however, despite the label, cosmetic hand sanitisers may not be as effective as they claim to be.

Following the colossal demand for hand sanitiser, earlier this year the Federal Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) relaxed regulations on the manufacture of medical-grade (or therapeutic) hand sanitiser.

This meant businesses, including boutique wineries, breweries and distilleries could produce alcohol to make medical-grade hand sanitiser without TGA approval or notification.

These businesses must follow recipes developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) resulting in formulations containing 80 per cent ethanol or 75 per cent isopropyl alcohol, both effective against the COVID-19 virus.

However, the requirement to follow the WHO formulations does not apply to common hand sanitisers found in the same shops. Products that are for personal or domestic use, with no claims of effectiveness against viruses and use low-risk ingredients, are categorised as cosmetics. Provided the product does not make misleading claims about its effectiveness, cosmetic hand sanitisers are not required to contain the requisite percentage of alcohol to be effective against the COVID-19 virus.

Dr Marco Rizzi and Professor Elise Bant from UWA’s Law School are working with Professor Jeannie Paterson and researcher Alex Jane from University of Melbourne’s Law School to highlight the dangers.

Dr Rizzi said given the current high demand for hand sanitisers, consumer knowledge of the distinction between ‘cosmetic’ and ‘therapeutic’ sanitisers was crucial.

“We’ve expressed concerns about some sanitisers’ effectiveness against COVID-19, and the fact that some may kill germs but not necessarily viruses – this information isn’t always clear,” he said.

“It is also unclear whether cosmetic sanitisers have the requisite percentage of alcohol to effectively protect against COVID-19. While these brands are required to label their products with their ingredients, it is not required that the percentage of alcohol used is included.

“This includes many popular brands that claim effectiveness against 99.9 per cent of germs, however these germs may not include viruses like COVID-19.

“The possibility that many consumers are in the dark concerning the effectiveness of cosmetic sanitisers is troubling and, potentially, dangerous.”

In order for consumers to appreciate this distinction, they need access to the alcohol concentration of cosmetic products.

Dr Rizzi said that while the Government’s relaxation on therapeutic sanitisers was to be applauded, it must come with the necessary information.

“Despite the risk, the Government has done little to bridge this information gap,” he said.

“Not only are most consumers unaware of the distinction between cosmetic and therapeutic sanitisers, they have no practical means to find out the alcohol content of cosmetic sanitisers.

“This is particularly troubling at a time when national and international authorities are pushing for the use of hand sanitiser if you can’t wash your hands with soap.

“A further step would be to impose a ban on the labelling of cosmetic products that do not meet WHO standards as hand sanitisers. This would remove the word ‘sanitiser’ from the label given it has developed a new significance in this time of COVID-19 concern.”

Media references

Anna-lee Harry

UWA Media and PR Adviser

08 6488 7975

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