The federal government has placed more than 80 hand sanitizers on a recall list, citing possible health risks.
According to a recall and safety alert, the products are being recalled because they are not properly labelled or contain ingredients that are not approved by Health Canada, which may cause headaches or skin, eye or respiratory system irritation.
Canadians using the products on the list are being asked to stop using them and contact the company if they want more information or speak with a health care professional if they have concerns about the products.
So, what should consumers look for when buying hand sanitizer?
According to infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, hand sanitizer is effective when it has at least 62 per cent ethanol.
“It will be effective faster at higher concentrations but the more ethanol that’s in there, the more stringent it is on your skin,” Furness said.
Priyanka Mishra, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said sanitizer that is less than 60 per cent is less effective.
“As you keep on reducing the alcohol percentage, more [of the product] will be water,” she said.
“Sanitizer is basically water and alcohol. As you are reducing the alcohol percentage, the water will keep on increasing and causing it [to be] more and more dilute. The dilute product will not be that effective.”
Gel versus liquid
Mishra said gel-based products are more favourable than liquid ones.
“The gel one would be more concentrated and more effective,” she said.
“The gel form would be more thick and viscous so they can… stick to your hand and stay for a longer time to give you protection. The liquid one can dry out easily.”
Furness seconds that assessment.
“You want something that isn’t entirely watery… It just evaporates really quickly. Something that feels a little bit more like a gel, but then you really have to rub into your hands and then [it] evaporates a little bit more slowly. That would generally be more effective,” he said.
Furness, who admits he is sometimes “loosey goosey” with expiration dates, said this will matter over time.
“You might expect some of the ingredients to break down — maybe some of the moisturizers, it may separate a bit over time,” he said.
“For something you put on your skin, expiry isn’t going to be dangerous but it may, over time, be a bit less effective.”
Mishra said it is best to keep and use hand sanitizer for up to three years from the manufacturing date.
Handwashing versus sanitizer
Furness said handwashing is the gold standard for cleaning hands since it physically removes things. However, he noted that washing your hands too many times in a day will remove surface oils that your skin needs.
“Excessive handwashing is actually quite harmful. That’s what will cause your skin to dry [and] crack,” he said.
Furness said hand sanitizer is effective against bacteria and viruses, it doesn’t produce the same skin drying problems like too much handwashing does and it is mobile.
“If your hands are visibly soiled, you should wash them,” Furness said.
“But I think we don’t want to talk about hand sanitizer as the poor cousin or the last resort — it’s actually something everyone should carry with them.”
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