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Hand sanitizers are essential in the era of COVID, but some carry dangers, according to a new study.

By Claire Gillespie
March 30, 2021
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This time last year, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for curbing the spread of COVID-19, the demand for hand sanitizer reached an unprecedented level. Now, a new study found high levels of "contaminants" in several hand sanitizer brands—including benzene, which is known to cause cancer in humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study was carried out by Connecticut-based online pharmacy and product testing company Valisure. David Light, the founder and CEO of Valisure, tells Health that the company regularly analyzes thousands of drug and consumer products that are sold through their online pharmacy, which only dispenses products that their in-house lab has independently batch-certified.

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Credit: Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

"We recently added benzene to our list of compounds that we test for and soon started detecting it in hand sanitizers," Light explains. "As it quickly became clear this was a problem broadly affecting the overall hand sanitizer market in the US, we decided to conduct a market sweep and then file a Citizen Petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)."

According to Valisure's petition, they "tested and detected high levels of benzene and other contaminants in specific batches of hand sanitizer products containing active pharmaceutical ingredients of ethanol and isopropanol."

Valisure analyzed 260 bottles from 168 brands and found 17% of the samples contained detectable levels of benzene. And 21 bottles (8% of the samples) contained benzene above two parts per million (ppm), a temporary limit the FDA set for liquid hand sanitizers to alleviate the supply shortage during the pandemic.

Light was "very surprised" by the findings. "As a scientist, consumer, and father of five children who all use hand sanitizers, I was shocked to see benzene present in so many products at all, let alone at many times above the FDA's interim limit during the COVID-19 public health emergency," he says.

"It's shocking and frustrating to be detecting any levels of benzene in such a broadly used consumer product," Light adds. "Benzene's toxicity in humans has been well known in the scientific community for over 120 years. It is arguably one of the most, if not most, known chemicals that can cause cancer in humans even at trace levels."

Light was also surprised to learn that the FDA emergency guidance on hand sanitizer and its interim limit of 2 ppm for benzene only applies to liquid hand sanitizers and not to gels. "That means the benzene limit on gels is ostensibly zero, since the FDA's non-emergency guidance on drug products like hand sanitizers clearly states that benzene 'should not be employed in the manufacture of drug substances, excipients, and drug products because of [its] unacceptable toxicity,'" he says.

What hand sanitizer brands should you avoid?

Bottles of hand sanitizer from these 15 brands are identified in Valisure's report as having high levels of benzene:

Artnaturals

Scentsational Soaps & Candles Inc.

Huangjisoo

TrueWash

The Crème Shop

Star Wars Mandalorian

Body Prescriptions

Born Basic

Beauty Concepts

PureLogic

Miami CarryOn

Natural Wunderz

clean-protect-sanitize

Puretize

Hand Clean 100

The findings highlight what Light calls an "important regulatory gap that needs to be filled." The FDA doesn't provide a "daily exposure limit" of benzene as it does for probable human carcinogen contaminants like NDMA that have caused many drug recalls—it only establishes a "concentration limit."

This is potentially harmful, Light explains, because unlike drug products that can be physically small tablets or capsules, people could be using much higher volumes of hand sanitizer. "Even with a low concentration, an individual's total exposure to benzene could be concerningly high," he says.

What should be in your hand sanitizer

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides a recommended recipe for hand santizer, and it's pretty simple. An effective hand sanitizer requires only three main ingredients: isopropyl alcohol (also known as 2-propanol), hydrogen peroxide, and glycerol. Note that ethyl alcohol may be used instead of isopropyl alcohol, but no other types of alcohol, including methanol and 1-propanol, are acceptable in hand sanitizer because they can be toxic to humans.

And because hand sanitizers are classified as over-the-counter drugs regulated by FDA, those that meet the FDA's drug review conditions will include a "drug facts" label, which will describe the ingredients in the product. The FDA also has a list of products you shouldn't use, which you can use to check whether your hand sanitizer brand is safe.

But if you're still concerned about your hand sanitizer, remember it's actually secondary to good old-fashioned handwashing, per the CDC. If you have water and plain hand soap, you're taking the best personal hygiene step to protect yourself against COVID-19.

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