Is your hand sanitiser actually working?

Woman sanitising hand with sanitiser

Sue Hewitt

Posted August 20, 2020

Consumer watchdog urges Victorians to check alcohol content of hand sanitisters.

Many hand sanitisers on sale in Victoria are not effective in protecting people from the coronavirus.

The warning comes from consumer advocate Choice, which advises that while hand sanitisers with no or low alcohol content may kill some germs, they are ineffective against viruses such as coronavirus.

Choice spokeswoman Margaret Rafferty says the best protection against the virus is thorough hand-washing with soap and warm water for at least 30 seconds. When that is not possible Australian health authorities and the World Health Organisation recommend only those hand sanitisers containing 60 to 80 per cent alcohol.

But some products claiming to contain alcohol may not have the required concentration to combat the virus. Choice investigated one hand sanitiser labelled as having 70 per cent alcohol, but found it had just 23 per cent alcohol. It was withdrawn from the market and Choice is currently investigating 30 more products claiming to have the correct alcohol content.

Choice reviews and testing director Matthew Steen recommends a simple test for spotting a fake: “If a hand sanitiser is sticky and doesn't evaporate off your hands quickly, that’s a clue that it might not have the appropriate amount of alcohol needed to kill the virus.”

The organisation has broadened its work to include alcohol-free hand sanitisers after queries from consumers.

Margaret says many people wrongly assume that all hand sanitisers are effective against COVID-19.

“In ordinary times, alcohol-free hand sanitisers that kill most germs are good for a freshen-up, but in these times alcohol-free sanitisers are of no use to protect you from the coronavirus,” she says.

She fears alcohol-free sanitisers could give people a false sense of security and put them at risk.

WHO states that if you don’t have access to soap and water, sanitisers that contain alcohol are “the only known means for rapidly and effectively inactivating a wide array of potentially harmful micro-organisms on hands” – including coronavirus.

For “enveloped” viruses such as coronavirus, alcohol works by breaking down the lipid or fat outer layer exposing the genetic material within and deactivating the virus, Margaret explains.   

This is why soap is so effective at helping to limit the spread of COVID-19, she says, because it is good at breaking down fats.

Alcohol-free hand sanitisers often contain antimicrobial agents such as quaternary ammonium compounds, but experts warn they’re probably not effective against viruses, Margaret says.

Other antimicrobial disinfectants in alcohol-free hand sanitisers might include triclosan, chlorine compounds, peroxygens such as hydrogen peroxide, triethylene glycol or chlorhexidine.

Margaret says experts have found that while these ingredients disrupt cell components and can be effective against bacteria and other organisms, they are unlikely to be effective against viruses. 

One tip is to carry a drink bottle filled with soapy water, says Mary-Louise McLaws, a Professor of Epidemiology, Healthcare Infection and Infectious Diseases Control at the University of NSW and an advisor to WHO.

You can use this to thoroughly wash your hands when there are no bathroom facilities available, she says. 

Choice’s tips for choosing an effective hand sanitiser 

  1. Only buy hand sanitiser that has a stated alcohol percentage of 60 to 80 per cent. If it's not stated, don't risk it. 
  2. If a hand sanitiser is sticky and doesn't evaporate off your hands quickly, it might not have the appropriate amount of alcohol needed to kill the virus. 
  3. Does it smell of alcohol and feel cool on the skin? While imprecise, be wary of hand sanitisers that don’t pass this test. 
  4. Steer clear of hand rubs and wipes that only state they kill bacteria or germs – this doesn’t mean they’re effective against COVID-19. Instead look for effectiveness against viruses or alcohol content above 60 per cent and follow the suggestions above. 

And remember to...

  • Maintain 1.5 metres’ distance between yourself and people outside your immediate household. Face coverings are mandatory when outside the home for all Victorians aged 12 and over. Read our guide to COVID-19 face masks.
  • Wash or sanitise your hands thoroughly and often, especially after using the bathroom, before eating and after coughing or sneezing.
  • Get a COVID-19 test immediately if you experience even mild symptoms, such as a sore throat, runny nose, cough or fever, then stay at home until receiving a negative result.
  • The federal government is urging Australians to download the COVIDSafe app, to help authorities speed up contacting people who may have been exposed to the virus. 
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