The rub: Is your hand gel effective against sars-cov-2?

How can you be sure the hand sanitiser you are using is effective against sars-cov-2? And other viruses? Shutterstock

How can you be sure the hand sanitiser you are using is effective against sars-cov-2? And other viruses? Shutterstock

6 out of 10 hand sanitising products purchased at random in Luxembourg carried vague or no information on their effectiveness in stopping the spread of coronavirus and only two had been recorded on the biocidal register, a Delano investigation has found.

From a basket of 10 products purchased randomly from shops in Luxembourg during the pandemic, only four out of ten were considered to meet professional cleaning standards, according to a cleaning expert.

“Are these other hand gels bad? No, because it’s better than nothing at all. But, as a professional, I must have a product that guarantees perfect hygiene,” Antonio Caetano, manager of professional cleaning products firm Boma Luxembourg, told Delano on 12 August.

What to look for

Caetano, who has the Fachwirt in Reinigung und Hygiene certification, qualifying him to advise businesses on cleaning materials and methods, says that for maximum efficiency in killing the sars-cov-2 virus, the World Health Organization recommends alcohol-based hand gels be composed 60-80% of alcohol (ie ethanol, isopropanol or n-propanol, or a combination of). Caetano applies the 70% threshold since a 60% alcohol mix will not kill all bacteria. However, vague product labelling makes it difficult to determine if a hand gel meets this criteria.

Normally, this information is included in the technical data sheet that accompanies a professional product, which would be provided to the retailer. However, manufacturers and distributors are not obliged to give these data sheets to consumers.

Of the basket of products examined, one that was purchased from a supermarket at the start of the pandemic appeared to contain no alcohol. It should be noted the product was no longer on sale at the end of July.

The majority carried vague labels, suggesting that they contained alcohol but not clarifying the proportion. One product even stated that it contained minimum 65% alcohol, a proportion insufficient to kill all viruses.

Biocidal register

Another consideration for hydro-alcoholic hand gels or liquids is that they must be registered on Luxembourg’s biocidal products register in order to be sold in Luxembourg. The register ensures that disinfectants, preservatives and pest control products conform with European and national safety requirements. Caetano pointed out that at the start of the pandemic, several products slipped through the cracks to meet the pressing demand. He said for instance that pharmacists were able to make their own hand sanitisers to help meet demand. “It’s not complicated to create a hand gel. All you need is alcohol, a stabiliser and gel,” he said.

Caetano examines a hand cleaning product on 12 August 2020. Photo: Delano

According to the environment and educational ministries responding to a parliamentary question, the Luxembourg state itself imported 56,000 bottles of Lionser medical disinfectant, a Chinese-made hand sanitiser that at the time was not listed on the biocidal register. The product was distributed in schools, and other state services linked to crisis management.

There were 74 biocidal products on the most recent notified list for hand cleaning products, dated 20 July. Of the total, only two products from the randomly compiled basket were identified in the register. Some of the hand sanitisers may not have been listed because they were alcohol-free, using quarternary ammonium compounds instead of alcohol. These can reduce microbes but are considered less effective than alcohol.

What’s needed?

In its parliamentary question answer, the environment ministry said that its administration conducts checks on biocidal products found on the market. At the time of writing, it had not responded to Delano’s question as to how many checks were carried out and what were the findings.

The 10 hand sanitising products purchased from Luxembourg shops since the start of the pandemic. Photo: Delano

A spokesperson for the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which supports a group focusing on enforcing biocidal product regulation, said member states had reported an increase in the number of “non-compliant disinfectants on the market and inspectors have taken action to enforce these breaches.

“In June, we published news on this. The breaches found by the inspectors included a lack of required authorisation or permit, or lack of hazard labelling. Many countries also indicated that they found products that were claimed to be disinfectants but which cannot be sufficiently effective against viruses--for example, due to insufficient concentrations of active substances. However, we do not have statistical data about these controls from the member states.”

According to the ECHA, national enforcement authorities are responsible for conducting market inspections and checking online sales. They may impose fines and withdraw products from sale.

The best solution

In all cases, Caetano said that hand gel should only be considered as an alternative when it is not possible to wash ones hands with soap and water for 30 seconds. “If someone can wash their hands with water and soap that’s largely enough to kill sars cov-2,” he said.

Products marked in green and yellow were considered by Antonio Caetano as clearest in labelling, and containing sufficient levels of alcohol to be effective. Green indicates the products were notified or listed on the biocidal register.