A scientist from the University of Pretoria (UP) has found that commercial, off-the-shelf hand
sanitisers used by the public in and around Tshwane, Gauteng are substandard, do not contain the
recommended alcohol content, and are mostly incorrectly labelled according to local and international
A vast majority of the products analysed during the study found that sanitiser solutions did not contain alcohol
compositions for ethanol and isopropanol, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Most
did not have the required 70% ethanol recommended by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hand sanitisers are seen as the first line of defence against COVID-19, and because alcohol content and
concentrations are imperative for a sanitiser to have virucidal activity, these findings suggest a widespread
lack of adherence to the required composition. The study’s findings were published in the South African
Journal of Science, https://doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2021/9328 by Dr Abdullahi Ahmed Yusuf, Senior Lecturer in
Entomology in UP’s Department of Zoology and Entomology in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.
“The results from the study, which involved testing a range of readily available sanitisers in the Tshwane area
for compliance with international standards, are concerning, particularly as we head into the fourth wave and
rely on this non-pharmaceutical intervention for limiting the spread of the virus,” Dr Yusuf said. “There are
several substandard hand sanitisers out there; this is driven largely by profit. For example, because ethanol is
an expensive solution, if you cut corners on 10%, that equates to more profit.”
According to Dr Yusuf, government monitoring of sanitiser products is imperative, as some manufacturers
have failed to spell out what they contain, which is a deviation from the local standard. Of particular concern,
he noted, was the inconsistency in the amount of ethanol in these sanitisers, thus affecting their efficacy.
Dr Yusuf said that 50 products of different origins and formulations obtained off the shelf and in public places
in and around Tshwane were analysed for their alcohol content using gas chromatography.
“Ethanol was the most common alcohol used, followed by isopropanol. Only 21 (42%) of the products analysed contained at least 70% alcohol; of these, only 14 (28%) met the WHO’s recommended 80% alcohol content to have a
virucidal effect on SARS-CoV-2.”
Substandard sanitisers, however, do not seem to be limited to Gauteng. Dr Yusuf stressed that, according to
anecdotal evidence, the problem is countrywide. The study found that of the 41 commercial off-the-shelf
products analysed, 27 (66%) contained less than 70% alcohol in comparison to 13% of homemade products.
Only 18% of gel products contained 70% alcohol, compared with 47% for liquid-based products. Most of the
products did not contain the appropriate or correct declaration asrecommended by the South African National
Standards (SANS 289 and 490).
The proliferation of substandard hand sanitisers calls for stricter regulation and enforcement to protect the
public, their rights and their well-being during and after the COVID-19 pandemic period, Dr Yusuf said.However, in the interim, “formulation of alcohol-based hand sanitisers using WHO guidelines should be mandatory. As such, when made correctly, formulations do have the required virucidal effect against SARSCoV-2,” he added.
Ironically, homemade alcohol-based hand sanitisers conformed to a greater degree to WHO standards. “It is
evident from these resultsthat there is a need to monitor the manufacture of off-the-shelf productsto ensure
compliance and to assure consumersthat products offer the required protection against SARS-CoV-2,” he said.
A direct rapid, reproducible gas chromatography method for the determination of alcohol composition in hand
sanitisers that can be used for quality control was developed and optimised as part of the study. Most
commercial alcohol-based products do not contain the required amount of alcohol to be classified as effective
virucides, especially against SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.
The presence of products on the market and in public places that do not qualify as alcohol-based hand
sanitisers and are not appropriately labelled poses a significant risk to consumers. This is in the wake of
preventative measures against COVID-19, more so because hand hygiene and disinfection remain one of the
most (if not the only) effective action for mitigating the spread of the disease available at this time. “Thus,
using substandard products exposes the population unknowingly to the virus by increasing the chances of
transmission via contaminated surfaces,” said Dr Yusuf.
He recommended that quality control measures – especially at the manufacturing, wholesale and retail levels
– need to be put in place. Added to this is the need to test alcohol-based hand sanitisers and any product sold
for its virucidal effect to confirm its efficacy. “For now, in the absence of appropriate quality control measures,preparing alcohol-based hand sanitisers using the WHO’s guide for local formulations remains a better
alternative to purchasing off-the-shelf products that are primarily substandard.”