Hand sanitizers pose ongoing threat to consumer health

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Product that’s supposed to make us safer during COVID-19 pandemic could do harm

CLEVELAND — Consumers using hand sanitizer to kill the coronavirus may be unwittingly putting toxic substances on their skin. In the weeks since first discovering the problem, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has found nearly three dozen brands of potentially tainted sanitizer.

Last month, the FDA flagged five brands of hand sanitizer for recall because they either contain methanol or may be contaminated with the toxic form of alcohol. As the FDA’s investigation continued this month, its list has grown to 34 brands that make 69 varieties of sanitizer (as of July 20). The list has grown every week. 

In all cases, the FDA recommends consumers not use the products. The hand sanitizers are labeled as containing ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol) but either have tested positive for methanol or were made at the same facility as a contaminated product. Methanol can be toxic when absorbed through the skin, the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say. The products should just be discarded, the FDA says, but safely — not in sinks or toilets.

The Consumer Watchdog team at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has discovered several disturbing facts:

— The FDA’s current labeling requirements are so lax that it can be difficult for consumers to determine whether a particular variety of hand sanitizer is dangerous without actually having it tested. The FDA’s “do-not-use list” cites products by variety and National Drug Code (NDC) number and says most of the hazardous products so far were produced in Mexico. However, hand sanitizer labels aren’t required to have the NDC number or disclose where the product was manufactured.

The FDA now recommends that consumers avoid all of the brands cited, regardless of the bottle size, alcohol strength, scent, National Drug Code number or where the product is manufactured, spokesman Jeremy Kahn said, adding, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

— Under the pandemic public health emergency declared in March, companies that aren’t registered as drug manufacturers were granted temporary permission to produce much-needed hand sanitizer, as long as they follow FDA guidelines. This has allowed many new players that aren’t known for personal hygiene products to manufacture hand sanitizer to sell in the United States. 

“Before COVID-19, companies that weren’t approved as drug manufacturers couldn’t make hand sanitizer. Now they can,” PIRG Consumer Watchdog Teresa Murray said. “How can anyone be surprised that some companies are jumping on the opportunity to make money and aren’t following the rules, either intentionally or unintentionally?”

“It’s ironic that consumers are buying hand sanitizer to stay safe and may actually be endangering themselves,” Murray added.

— The FDA, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission all say they don’t have the authority to get these products off the shelves or pulled from retail websites, unless the product labels are deceptive; for example, if the labels claim they cure COVID-19 or claim they don’t contain methanol.

Link to PIRG’s original report: