The Fallout from Hand Sanitizer Demand

Source: By Anna Edney, Bloomberg • Posted: Monday, March 29, 2021

Hand sanitizers exploded in popularity a year ago as people rushed to protect themselves from coronavirus germs, making room for lesser-known brands to jump into the market. But sometimes when newcomers help fill a supply gap, standards droop.

Online pharmacy Valisure, which tests the products it sells for impurities, analyzed 260 hand sanitizer bottles from 168 brands and found 17% contained detectable levels of the known carcinogen benzene.

Twenty-one bottles from 15 different brands contained benzene levels over two parts per million, which is a temporary limit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed for liquid hand sanitizers to try to keep supply on shelves even as mainstays like Purell and Suave sold out. Valisure found those big-name brands were safe.

Artnaturals, which has more than 10,000 reviews on for various versions of its 8-ounce and 1-gallon hand sanitizer containers, had the highest benzene levels at 16 parts per million in one of the bottles Valisure tested. Another cleanser among the top offenders was a Baby Yoda-themed bottle from Best Brands Consumer Products.

ArtNaturals hand sanitizer is seen inside Rite-Aid in Ardsley NY, U.S. Friday, March 19, 2021 Photographer: Tiffany Hagler-Geard / Bloomberg
ArtNaturals hand sanitizer. Photographer: Tiffany Hagler-Geard / Bloomberg

Benzene is a serious carcinogen. The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm ranks it among the most dangerous cancer-causing chemicals, on par with asbestos. It has been found to cause leukemia in workers in manufacturing industries.

The chemical is also used to purify ethanol, the grain alcohol used to make hand sanitizers. Once bottles of hand sanitizer hit store shelves, the benzene is supposed to have been distilled away or at least to very low levels.

Valisure asked the FDA to recall hand sanitizers that have high levels of benzene. The regulator has focused on getting a large number of hand sanitizers that contain another contaminant, a poisonous alcohol called methanol, off the market.

The FDA encourages retailers to remove products from stores shelves and online marketplaces if quality issues arise, said Jeremy Kahn, a spokesman.

“The agency reminds manufacturers, distributors, re-packagers and importers they are responsible for the quality of their products and urges manufacturers to test their ingredients to ensure they meet specifications and are free from harmful contamination,” he said in an email.

Sidney Wolfe, founder of the government watchdog Public Citizen, said there’s no reason hand sanitizer with any detectable benzene levels should be allowed for sale.

“Most of these don’t have any detectable levels,” Wolfe said of Valisure’s analysis. “If it is possible to have hand sanitizers that don’t have any detectable levels, it is inexcusable that the FDA doesn’t ban any hand sanitizer that contains any detectable level.”—Anna Edney