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Hand sanitiser labels need a clean up

There's nothing to stop companies selling dodgy hand sanitiser in Australia – even during a pandemic

hand sanitiser
CHOICE staff
CHOICE staff
Last updated: 28 October 2020
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CHOICE has launched a petition calling on Australia's leaders to fix hand sanitiser labelling and resource spot checks to ensure that companies can't get away with selling products that won't protect against the spread of COVID-19. 

"Hand sanitiser standards in Australia are a confusing mess," says CHOICE health campaigner Dean Price. "But this can easily be fixed through labelling that makes sense to people and spot testing by the government to make sure products actually work."

Labelling found lacking

The petition was launched after CHOICE research* found that 66% of Australians either didn't know (36%) or incorrectly believed (30%) alcohol-free sanitisers would protect them from COVID-19, highlighting a major information gap that could leave Australians buying products that won't protect them.

CHOICE also analysed the labelling and claims of 30 supermarket sanitisers, following alarming results on a spot test we conducted on sanitiser sold by Mosaic Brands store Katies earlier this year. 

This test and the worrying results prompted us to investigate further. What we found were sanitisers lacking key information and, in some cases, making dubious claims. This analysis also found that 47% of sanitiser brands don't label their alcohol content at all. 

CHOICE is calling for Federal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, who is responsible for the Australian Consumer Law, to urgently:

  • implement a national labelling standard for these products so that only those known to be effective against viruses can use the term "hand sanitiser"
  • resource regular spot checks of sanitiser products to ensure they have enough alcohol to be effective against COVID-19

This would allow the ACCC to issue fines to businesses that fail to comply with the standards.

This petition is the latest effort from CHOICE to make sure that the hand sanitisers we buy can be relied upon to help stop the spread of COVID-19, and follows on from our independent, crowdfunded testing and complaints to regulators. 

* This survey was included as part of TEG's October omnibus and fieldwork was conducted on 13-20 October, 2020. The sample size was 1013, respondents were aged 18-70 and data was weighed to represent the Australian population.

Consumers expect hand sanitiser to work

CHOICE undertook a nationally representative survey and found that people have high expectations when it comes to the regulation of hand sanitisers. The survey found 74% of Australians trust that the sanitisers sold in supermarkets and chemists are effective against COVID-19.

"These high expectations gives the Australian Government a chance to meet people's expectations with better regulation of hand sanitiser that will stop people being sold ineffective products," says Price.

Other findings from the research include that 59% of people incorrectly believe that hand sanitisers sold in Australia are required by law to state the percentage of alcohol they contain on the label.  Nearly half (49%) incorrectly believe that hand sanitisers sold in Australia are required by law to contain a certain amount of alcohol.

Testing the market

Earlier this year we looked at why so many businesses are jumping on the hand sanitiser band wagon and whether they can be trusted. 

We advised people against using alcohol-free hand sanitiser and published a guide of simple tests you can do to see if hand sanitiser is likely to be above the recommended 60% alcohol, including paying attention to the smell and feel of hand sanitiser. 

After identifying just how widespread ineffective alcohol-free sanitisers were becoming, we sent a number of complaints about these sanitisers to regulators, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). 

But some alcohol-based sanitisers also presented a real concern. CHOICE then expanded its own testing program in the absence of meaningful regulation or monitoring, following a community tip-off. That test revealed a sanitiser with only 23% alcohol content – well below the amount required to be effective.

The Australian Government needs to set the standards high and resource spot checks to make sure the products are up to scratch

Our most recent analysis of hand sanitiser labels has found nearly half of the brands sold in major supermarkets don't list their alcohol content, leaving Australians in the dark about what these essential COVID-19 protective products actually contain.

Since releasing these findings, CHOICE investigated a wider range of supermarket hand sanitisers. More than 300 people chipped in to fund this testing of an additional 30 brands and we'll be publishing these results soon.

"With hand sanitiser such an important part of the response to COVID-19, the Australian Government needs to set the standards high and resource spot checks to make sure the products are up to scratch," says Price.

People expect the government to do more

Over 8000 people tested their knowledge with our hand sanitiser quiz, giving us valuable insight into what people know about and expect from hand sanitiser regulation. 

The results found more than one in four people mistakenly thought that hand sanitiser required a minimum concentration of alcohol in order to be sold in the supermarket or chemist.

"Right now, companies can call non-alcoholic gel products 'hand sanitiser' even when there's no good evidence these products offer effective protection against viruses," says Price. 

"These dud 'sanitisers' can sit on the same supermarket shelves as genuinely effective options. We need better labels to help people find sanitisers guaranteed to protect them and their families."

"Companies can call non-alcoholic gel products 'hand sanitiser' when there's no good evidence these products offer effective protection against viruses" 

CHOICE health campaigner, Dean Price

CHOICE has started to brief Senators and Members of Parliament on the need to advocate for urgent legal change. Our advocates have explained that any loophole that allows companies to deceive and mislead people in this way is a threat to our consumer rights.

"These are simple actions the federal government can take right now to ensure safe and effective sanitisers are being sold to Australians," says Price. "Even outside of the context of a global pandemic, we must set a higher standard for essential health products and fix the confusing mess of sanitiser standards this crisis has laid bare." 

The good news is this can be fixed, but we need clear labelling that makes sense to people and spot testing by the government to ensure products actually work.