Need to know
- Following our test of a hand sanitiser product sold by Mosaic Brands that contained just 23% alcohol, CHOICE had a further 29 hand sanitisers tested
- All 29 brands contained more than the 60% alcohol many authorities suggest consumers should aim for, but a second test of the product sold by Mosaic Brands returned the same result as earlier
- There was a wide variation in the alcohol content of the products we tested, from 61% to 94%, but a higher alcohol content doesn’t mean a product is more effective
A second round of CHOICE testing has delivered good news about the effectiveness of hand sanitiser on our supermarket and pharmacy shelves.
In July we found that a hand sanitiser from clothing company Mosaic Brands contained just 23% alcohol content, even though it was labelled as containing 70% alcohol.
So we sourced 29 other brands of hand sanitisers and again commissioned Australia's National Measurement Institute (NMI) to test them for alcohol content.
The recommended minimum alcohol content for effective hand sanitisers ranges from 60% to 80%, depending on the type of alcohol. The WHO standard is 80% ethanol or 75% isopropyl alcohol. Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) calls for at least 60% alcohol.
All of the products in our latest test were found to contain more than 60% alcohol.
We also conducted a repeat test on the initial batch of hand sanitiser sold by Mosaic Brands ... which again showed just 23% alcohol
We also conducted a repeat test on the initial batch of hand sanitiser sold by Mosaic Brands (Air Clean instant hand sanitiser – Aloe Vera) which again showed just 23% alcohol.
The upshot? Consumers can use the latest 29 products we tested with the assurance that they'll offer some protection against COVID-19, especially when washing your hands is not an option.
How much alcohol is enough?
With so much variation in the percentage of alcohol found in our testing – from 61% up to 94% – we wondered if more alcohol means a better product.
Professor Andrew McLachlan, dean of pharmacy at Sydney University's School of Pharmacy, says evidence supports a recommendation for hand sanitiser products that contain more than 60% alcohol.
At least 60% is needed to effectively disrupt the viral envelope (which is how alcohol works against viruses)Professor Andrew McLachlan, dean of pharmacy, Sydney University
"The TGA's recommendation of at least 60% makes sense and this is supported by some published evidence," he said.
But that doesn't mean that more alcohol is better.
"At least 60% is needed to effectively disrupt the viral envelope (which is how alcohol works against viruses). For some people, higher alcohol content may be more irritant to the skin, especially because it can dry out the skin if used frequently. This is why many hand sanitisers might also include emollients or moisturisers," he explains.
One issue that emerged during our testing was the problem of the margin of error in testing. If a test shows that a hand sanitiser has alcohol content of 60%, a 10 percentage point margin of error – which is what the gas chromatography method used in our test carries – would mean the actual result could be between 54% and 66%. Does that mean that a result showing alcohol content in the low 60s shouldn't be trusted? No, says Professor McLachlan.
Make washing your hands with soap and water your first choice and when this isn't an option, choose a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol
"All analytical tests carry some margin of error. It is good to understand the accuracy – how close the test measures according to the actual true content; and precision – how reproducible is the test. A labelled hand sanitiser product measured at 60% is acceptable in my view," he says.
This is a nuanced subject. Percentages of alcohol, different types of alcohol, margins of error – these and other variables can make it difficult to know which products can be trusted. The short answer is to make washing your hands with soap and water your first choice and when this isn't an option, choose a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Hand sanitisers in the time of COVID-19
Among the many disappointing practices by businesses large and small we've been tracking during the COVID-19 crisis, the marketing and sales of some hand sanitiser products have been especially troubling.
In the midst of a shortage of quality hand sanitisers that would be effective against the coronavirus pathogen, many retailers who hadn't previously sold sanitiser jumped into the market.
Price gouging on essential items is bad behaviour. Selling products that promise to protect you against a deadly virus when they won't is far worse
Some amped up the advertising on products that wouldn't actually protect you, such as alcohol-free hand sanitisers.
Some appear to have acted in good faith in their efforts to bring more product to market. The distilling industry, for instance, repurposed itself in some cases from makers of whisky, vodka and gin to makers of alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
According to deputy president of the Australian Distillers Association Cameron Syme, the industry produced products that met the World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 80% ethanol, with hydrogen peroxide, glycerol and distilled or boiled water.
No update from Mosaic Brands on defective hand sanitiser
Then there were businesses that weren't so conscientious, in particular the women's clothing retailer, Mosaic Brands.
After calling out Mosaic Brands for panic marketing, appalling customer service and failure to deliver hand sanitiser products, we went to the testing lab.
In CHOICE's first test of hand sanitisers, conducted at Australia's National Measurement Institute (NMI), we determined that a bottle of hand sanitiser sold by the Mosaic Brands store Katies (Air Clean aloe vera) contained just 23% alcohol, though the label on the bottle claimed 70%.
Mosaic Brands didn't respond to our request for an update
That finding led us to widen the scope of our investigation. So we asked Mosaic Brands for an update on its statement in our earlier story: "We withdrew the product from sale temporarily pending further clarification. Orders for the product will not be fulfilled until we receive the results of the independent tests we are undertaking."
We've heard from one Mosaic Brands customer who has received a refund for the defective product and was apparently told by customer service that the product has been recalled.
That information was not on any of the Mosaic Brands websites we checked or on the ACCC's product recall site.
Another customer recently got in touch to tell us he'd contacted Mosaic Brands for a refund in mid-July but has yet to receive a reply.
Mosaic Brands didn't respond to our request for an update.
CHOICE hand sanitiser testing continues
But the pandemic is still with us, and there's more testing to be done.
Our Mosaic Brands test was put into play by a tip-off from a CHOICE supporter, one of the many we've received since the COVID-19 crisis got underway.
Generally speaking, most of the 29 hand sanitiser products in our most recent tests are mainstream products available at brick and mortar retailers, from manufacturers who were making hand sanitiser before the pandemic.
But many of the tip-offs we've received are about hand sanitisers that aren't on this list and were available through online retailers. In some cases they appear to have been opportunistically marketed.
For our next round of tests, we'll narrow down the list of tip-offs to those that appear particularly doubtful or have been called out repeatedly by our allies and supporters – meaning you
For our next round of tests, we'll be narrowing down the list of tip-offs to those that appear particularly doubtful or have been called out repeatedly by our allies and supporters – meaning you.
Why are we doing this? To put a stop to dodgy consumer marketing practices for one thing.
But more importantly, to help Australians make the right shopping decisions when it comes to protecting themselves against COVID-19.
It's a decision that shouldn't be made more difficult by retailers looking to make a quick buck.
Help fund independent testing
It costs $730 to test, investigate and publish the results of each hand sanitiser in this article, and we've identified at least 30 more brands that should be investigated.
As a nonprofit organisation, CHOICE depends on your support to make these results free for everyone to access. Can you chip in to help fund independent lab testing of hand sanitisers during this crucial time?