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Hand sanitisers sold in Johannesburg contained traces of toxic ingredients

A study has found that hand sanitisers sold around Johannesburg in 2020 contained traces of harmful ingredients, and some had less alcohol than required.
A study has found that hand sanitisers sold around Johannesburg in 2020 contained traces of harmful ingredients, and some had less alcohol than required.
Image: Supplied

A new study has revealed that many hand sanitiser brands sold in Johannesburg in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic contained traces of toxic ingredients and less alcohol than required. 

The study was published in Scientific Reports this month and was conducted by researchers from the National Health Laboratory Service national institute for occupational health. 

It was prompted by media reports that many alcohol-based hand sanitisers  were substandard and some contained potentially toxic ingredients.

The researchers set out to identify hand sanitisers without the recommended alcohol concentration of at least 70% propanol or 60% ethanol, and those that contained toxic ingredients.

The World Health Organisation recommended the use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers, in the absence of soap and water, to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

“Unfortunately, many hand sanitisers in SA have not been verified to meet the regulators’ recommendations or that they are manufactured under the stipulated regulatory conditions,” the researchers said. 

“In addition, the regulator [SA Bureau of Standards] lacks verifiable information to ascertain the methods being used to prepare hand sanitisers at homes and to determine if these sanitisers are safe for use on human skin.”

The researchers collected 94 samples of hand sanitiser from shops and street vendors between March and June 2020.

“While more (56%) brands of hand sanitiser in this study contained the recommended concentration of alcohol, there were also many (44%) substandard and possibly subpotent preparations,” the study found.

“The study also found that only 30% (10 gels and 9 liquids) of the analysed hand sanitisers contained 80% alcohol.

“Even though alcohol concentrations higher than 80% are known to be less potent against bacteria because proteins are not easily denatured in the absence of water, this bodes well for disinfection against SARS-CoV-2 as ethanol at 80% is highly effective against enveloped viruses.”

Researchers also established that some hand sanitisers contained toxic ingredients. “This is worrying because even if a hand sanitiser contains enough alcohol as recommended or contains ingredients that enhance its virucidal activity in case of low alcohol content ... the presence of toxic ingredients renders the preparation harmful and unfit for human use,” they said.

“It is for this reason that it is recommended that all consumers (workplaces and the public in general) be aware of untrustworthy brands of hand sanitiser supplying substandard and possibly subpotent sanitiser preparations or sanitisers with toxic ingredients.”

Unscrupulous manufacturers in SA misled the public by labelling their products as “SABS approved”, the researchers said. 

“Unknowingly, using a hand sanitiser with no virucidal activity against SARS-CoV-2 may give one a false sense of security, while those using sanitisers containing toxic ingredients are likely to suffer from the associated risks,” according to the study. 

“For example, exposure to methanol through both ingestion and transdermal absorption, if left untreated, can be extremely dangerous, leading to significant disability and death.

“Even if toxic substances are just traces, the typical frequent use of hand sanitiser products throughout the day can result in very high total exposure with consequent adverse health effects.”

SA, like other countries, had relaxed legislation to enable “local businesses to rapidly-produce alcohol-based hand sanitisers to meet the great surge in demand for hand sanitisation products during the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak”. 

“The SA public is also advised to remain alert to media reports that continually keep surfacing about hand sanitiser brands in violation of the SABS guidelines, by producing sanitiser preparations that are subpotent or contain toxic substances.”



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