Hand sanitizer contamination prompts more recalls during COVID-19

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Monday, August 10, 2020
Anne-Marie Nicol

Hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the preferred way to wash hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. When soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer is another easy, convenient, inexpensive, and accessible option to clean and disinfect hands. However, hand sanitizer use is not without risk. In April, the NCCEH released a blog and poster that outlined how to use hand sanitizers safely and provided a link to the initial list of Health Canada authorized products.


Beyond packaging- new concerns regarding hand sanitizer ingredients

Since May, Health Canada has issued and updated a series of recalls and advisories about specific brands and lots of hand sanitizers that have been sold in Canada. These warnings focus on problems with ingredients, labeling and false claims made by producers about effectiveness during COVID-19.


1) Contaminants in Hand Sanitizers

Health Canada’s most common warnings and recalls on their website focus on hand sanitizers contaminated with ethyl acetate (a common solvent), methanol (wood alcohol) and unauthorized ingredients.  The website provides information on the specific lot or serial numbers of the recalled products as well as the Drug Identification Number (DIN) or the Natural Product Number (NPN). This allows consumers to quickly reference their own products against the list. Health Canada cautions that products containing these ingredients could cause adverse reactions such as skin and eye irritation, upper respiratory irritation, skin cracking, dermatitis and headaches. The recalled products also pose a greater risk if consumed, particularly by children.


2) Technical grade hand sanitizer- not to be used by children or pregnant or feeding women

In late July 2020, Health Canada expanded an earlier recall  of hand sanitizers that contain technical grade ethanol due to concerns about inadequate labeling. Technical grade ethanol may contain acetaldehyde and prolonged exposure to elevated levels of acetaldehyde has been linked to cancer. Health Canada’s risk assessment has concluded that even though acetaldehyde levels the hand sanitizer are low, products made with technical grade ethanol should only be used by adults and not by pregnant or breast-feeding women. To differentiate these products, technical grade ethanol-based hand sanitizers are required to clearly detail risk statements and warnings for users on the label. The technical grade ethanol used in Canadian formulations must also be purchased from Health Canada authorized suppliers to meet approval specifications.


3) Advisories on unauthorized products or those with misleading claims

Health Canada has updated its advisory on false and misleading claims made by manufacturers of health products during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This advisory includes hand sanitizers as well as other cleaning and disinfecting products. Selling or advertising products with false claims is illegal in Canada.  If consumers have purchased products that claim to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19, they are advised to stop using them immediately and file a product complaint with the federal government.  


US FDA also issues hand sanitizer recalls

Canada is not the only country to see an increase in hand sanitizer related problems. The US FDA recently recalled a significant number of hand sanitizers due to methanol contamination. Many of these products were sold by major US department stores and supermarkets.  The US FDA is encouraging retailers to remove these products from shelves and is warning consumers that ingestion of methanol containing products can be life-threatening.  The USA is updating this recall list on a regular basis. If consumers have purchased hand sanitizer from US retailers, they are encouraged to check these against the FDA’s list. The US EPA also maintains a list of disinfectants approved for use against the COVID-19 virus.



As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, hand sanitizers continue to play an important role for hand hygiene where soap and water are not accessible. A 2020 Statistics Canada survey found that Canadian households are using much more hand sanitizer than in previous years, with sales up 3-7 times from the same period in 2019. This increase in consumption was one of the largest for any product in the cross-Canada grocery sales survey.

While hand sanitizers may be more commonplace, they are still regulated products that need to be used according to manufacturer’s directions. Consumers are encouraged to read labels carefully to ensure they are using approved products safely and to check their products against Health Canada’s growing list of recalls and advisories. Reading the label is particularly important if hand sanitizers are to be used on children or by pregnant or breast-feeding women and care should be taken when using hand sanitizers that are packaged similarly to beverage containers. If any amount hand sanitizer is swallowed, immediate medical help is strongly recommended, including calling a poison control centre.