Need to know
- A company claimed people should add its disinfecting product to their wash to stop the spread of COVID-19, but took the posts down after we asked them about it
- In reality, a regular wash with laundry detergent should inactivate the coronavirus
- Any marketing claims that a product prevents the spread of coronavirus has to be supported by tests conducted with coronavirus, and need regulatory approval
The folks at Euca, an Australian cleaning product company, had concerns that consumers were being duped by big brands into thinking that adding disinfectants to your wash along with laundry detergent could help ward off coronavirus (COVID-19).
Then, in a strange twist of logic, the company decided to get in on the action itself.
On a page of its website promoting 'Euca Disinfectant Natural, Commercial Grade Cleaner and Laundry Sanitiser' the company criticised the marketing of 'laundry additives', saying these products are "just a watered down versions [sic] of disinfectant re-labeled as a laundry sanitiser additive".
Euca said it considered marketing one itself, but then decided that its product would already do the trick as is, saying "We just need to advise our Euca users to add 20ml to 50ml of disinfectant to a wash to aid in the killing of bacteria."
Many viruses and bacteria are inactivated by common commercially available soaps and detergentsBrett Mitchell, professor of nursing at the University of Newcastle
The company pushed its disinfectant as a laundry product again in a blog post titled 'Disinfect Your Wash with Laundry Sanitiser Additives', published on 5 May.
The post warned, "Do you know that your laundry could make you sick too? Since viruses can live for hours on porous surfaces like clothing, it poses the risk of spreading the virus to other laundry items.
"In addition, most microorganisms present in soiled laundry survive the normal wash cycle; hence sanitising can go a long way towards totally eliminating those germs and viruses."
It then recommended adding Euca disinfectant as one of its tips for sanitising laundry, claiming the product is a "highly effective broad-spectrum disinfectant with quick contact time reaction against bacteria, enveloped viruses, pathogenic fungi, and mycobacteria".
Before long, the business started selling 'Euca Laundry Sanitiser Liquid Antibacterial' in addition to its disinfectant – despite having claimed that one is merely a watered-down version of the other. They also extended their coronavirus marketing.
On 15 September, in a blog post titled 'Euca: A Covid-19 Update', they wrote of wanting their customers to "stay healthy and protected at all times, especially when covid-19 remains rampant in some areas". That's why they were offering "tips and advice to protect yourself and others from covid-19".
The first tip? Sanitise your laundry. "It's not just surfaces that require disinfecting in the world of covid-19. Your laundry does, too," the post said. "During times like this, simply washing them is not enough. Make sure to add sanitiser to your load, as well as detergent. Euca's laundry sanitiser is an excellent choice."
Do you need laundry sanitiser?
We asked Dr Lisa Sedger, a virologist who heads the Viruses and Cytokines Research group at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Brett Mitchell, a professor of nursing at the University of Newcastle, to assess the accuracy of Euca's marketing claims.
Sedger notes that SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease – is an enveloped virus, "which means it's got a lipid membrane around the outside of it", she explains. Without this membrane, or "envelope", the virus can't infect human cells. This layer is "efficiently disrupted by detergents", Sedger says.
Mitchell says that many bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, are inactivated by common soaps and detergents. While sanitisers will reduce microorganisms – another word for germs – "whether they are needed in the first instance is debatable as usual laundering practices will as well," he says.
If you're already using a good detergent with hot water, [laundry sanitiser] should not be necessaryDr Lisa Sedger, virologist at UTS
Moreover, Mitchell says, we shouldn't be trying to kill all germs, as Euca claims. In fact, "our survival is dependent on them," he says.
In any case, "nothing is 'germ-free' because microorganisms are everywhere," Sedger says. "They are in food, in water, in the air we breathe."
According to both Mitchell and Sedger, there is truth to some of Euca's statements. "If you add a sanitising product, it will certainly help to get rid of [viruses and bacteria] on your clothes," Sedger says.
A normal wash with detergent should be enough to disrupt the coronavirus.
"But it's very unusual to have a large amount of virus on our clothes," she says. "You'd really need someone to be actively sick with the virus, shedding lots of virus in their nasal secretions, coughing, splattering, sneezing in front of you and you'd walk straight into the sneeze before you'd actually get highly contaminated."
Sedger says the coronavirus is much more likely to spread through regular contact points such as door handles, which people might touch after coughing on their hand.
"The next person comes along, touches the same door handle, opens it. Now they've got it on their hands. And that's where we don't realise just how frequently… we adjust our glasses, we wipe our eyes, scratch your nose. That's when you're more likely to infect yourself," she says.
"If you really want to add a sanitiser, that's like another layer of protection, but if you're already using a good detergent with hot water, it should not be necessary," says Sedger.
People are right to take precautions, she adds, but that doesn't mean you have to run all your clothes through a high-heat wash either, which can damage your clothes. She says in most cases, a normal wash with detergent should be enough to disrupt the virus. Sunlight is also beneficial: "The UV actually helps to sterilise your clothes."
Strict rules for advertising
Selling us things we don't need has long been part of businesses' marketing efforts, and this tradition has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As companies began to refer to coronavirus in ads for their products, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) published a warning. "The promotion of therapeutic goods to consumers for the prevention or treatment of novel coronavirus is likely to contravene the legislative requirements for a range of reasons," they wrote in February.
Any claims that a product prevents the spread of coronavirus has to be supported by tests conducted with coronavirus. Advertising that refers to coronavirus either explicitly or by implication also needs to be approved by the TGA before it goes out.
More generally, products that make virucidal, fungicidal or other biocidal claims – as Euca made about its products – have to be included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods before they can be legally supplied.
The current pandemic has seen some people take advantage of the heightened vulnerability of consumersTherapeutic Goods Administration
But a search for "Euca" on the register returns no results. We asked the TGA about Euca's claims.
They investigated the matter based on our inquiry, and decided Euca's marketing had breached laws by making unapproved references to COVID-19. The TGA sent a letter to Euca warning them to stop referring to COVID-19 in any of their advertising material.
There are sanctions and penalties for advertising that doesn't comply with the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 and the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code. In July, the TGA fined Lorna Jane almost $40,000 for claiming on its website that its "anti-virus activewear" would protect against infectious diseases, implying it would be effective against COVID-19.
"The TGA is aware that the current pandemic has seen some people take advantage of the heightened vulnerability of consumers and has warned consumers to be cautious about products claiming to prevent or cure COVID-19," the TGA tells us.
Euca on the defence
Leigh Goodall, the owner of Proud Products, the company behind Euca, told us they have no proof their laundry products are effective against SARS-CoV-2. "That has not been proven but the general knowledge is that soap will do that," he said. "Every soap will kill the virus."
We suggested to Goodall that Euca's claims about needing to disinfect laundry in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 appeared to be false or misleading.
Goodall repeatedly claimed that his business was simply "keeping up with the competition", citing "Chinese imports" in particular. He said laundry sanitisers were a recent marketing invention by other companies in response to COVID-19: "So we invented one."
He also accused CHOICE and "the bureaucracy" of harassing Australian producers and "preventing us going to market and trying to compete with the imports that are doing the wrong thing".
We asked Goodall to name the brands making similar claims, so we could look into them. Instead of doing so, he responded, "They have flooded the market and put the Australian producer out of business."
After being pressed a second time, he said: "I think Johnson & Johnson and Dettol have a machine laundry sanitiser that has drawings of COVID bacteria that's being washed away, saying it'll sanitise the germs."
Johnson & Johnson is a US multinational company and doesn't sell cleaning products. Dettol is owned by Reckitt Benckiser, a British multinational, and does have a laundry sanitiser.
The last frame of a YouTube ad for Dettol laundry sanitiser depicts bottles of the product and the words, "WHAT IT TAKES TO PROTECT*". Small text in the bottom corner add the caveat: "*Protection from germs". Neither the video or Dettol's Australian website mention protection from COVID-19.
Another of Dettol's YouTube ads begins with a voiceover saying, "Our fight is not yet over," followed by images of a family video call and a woman and a child on either side of a window, placing their hands together on the glass.
We'll take all these things down and we'll just probably sell nothingLeigh Goodall, the owner of Euca, on the brand's marketing referring to coronavirus
"We need to protect what really matters," the voiceover continues, as a series of images of Dettol products – hand sanitiser, soap, wipes and laundry sanitiser – flash on screen. The ad seems to imply that the products protect against COVID-19 without explicitly mentioning the coronavirus.
We asked the TGA if they had approved these products to make representations referring to COVID-19. They said the ad “does not make claims in relation to Covid-19” and would therefore not be investigating further.
In different versions of a standard pitch, other brands selling laundry sanitisers in Australia boast of "odour neutralizing [sic] technology", "eliminating 99.9% of germs" and leaving your laundry "hygienically clean". They include Pine O Clean, Di San and Clean Boost. The Di San laundry sanitiser has been sold in Australia since at least 2015.
None of these products refer to COVID-19.
"If you are reading [Euca's marketing] as exaggerated, well, it may be and we'll take it down if it's making an issue with you," Goodall said, expressing anger at the prospect. "We'll take all these things down and we'll just probably sell nothing," he said.
The last frame of an ad for Dettol laundry sanitiser depicts bottles of the product and the words, "WHAT IT TAKES TO PROTECT*". Small text adds the caveat: "*Protection from germs".
By the following day, Euca had removed its blog posts about COVID-19 and scrubbed all previous references to viruses and the pandemic from its product pages. It added a disclaimer at the bottom of the page for its laundry sanitiser: "Euca does not make any claim that our products specifically eliminate COVID-19."
During our phone call, Goodall had justified the claims made on Euca's website, insisting, "The marketplace wants it, we have to pay overheads and wages, and we're keeping up with the competition."
But in the midst of a nerve-rattling pandemic, at least one Euca customer had misgivings. Jennifer, of Bega, NSW, told us she liked some of Euca's other products, as well as the company's ethos. So when she saw the web page for its laundry sanitiser, she was "disappointed by the marketing spiel".
In a post in the CHOICE Community forum, which prompted this article, Jennifer wondered whether Euca was twisting the truth with its product description. "I really like the products from this mob," she wrote. "They don't need to come up with false fears."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.