The World Health Organization states that formulations of hand sanitizers containing 80% ethanol or 75% isopropyl alcohol are effective against the COVID-19 virus

By Ian Horswill


Posted on May 12, 2020

Sales of hand sanitizers have skyrocketed since the start of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, the fifth biggest city in China, late last year.

Supermarket shelves have been stripped bare of hand sanitizers. The North America hand sanitizer market alone is expected to grow at a considerable rate and account for a market value of US$2.08 billion at the end of 2025.

Washing with warm water and soap remains the gold standard for hand hygiene and preventing the spread of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. Washing with warm water (not cold water) and soap removes oils from hands that can harbour microbes.

Hand sanitizers can also protect against disease-causing microbes, especially in situations when soap and water is not available. Hand sanitizers come in gel, liquid, spray-on and wipes.

In the US, the Trump Administration’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) relaxed regulations on the manufacture of medical-grade (or therapeutic) hand sanitizer to allow businesses, including boutique wineries, breweries and distilleries to produce alcohol to make medical-grade hand sanitizer without TGA approval or notification. These businesses have to follow recipes developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) resulting in formulations containing 80% ethanol or 75% isopropyl alcohol, both effective against the COVID-19 virus.

However, the requirement to follow the WHO formulations does not apply to common hand sanitizers 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.

Cosmetic hand sanitizers are not required to contain the requisite percentage of alcohol to be effective against the COVID-19 virus.

Dr Marco Rizzi, from the University of Western Australia Law School, Professor Jeannie Paterson of University of Melbourne, Professor Elise Bant and researcher Alex Jane from the University of Melbourne are all working together to highlight the dangers.

Dr Rizzi told Medical Express that given the current high demand for hand sanitizers, consumer knowledge of the distinction between ‘cosmetic’ and ‘therapeutic’ sanitizers was crucial.

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

“It is also unclear whether cosmetic sanitizers 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% of germs, however these germs may not include viruses like COVID-19.”

hand washing, hand sanitizer

The best and most consistent way of preventing the spread of the coronavirus – and reducing your risk of contracting it – remains washing your hands with soap and water as a first choice, and avoiding touching your face as much as possible.