How the hand sanitizer market became the ‘wild west’ during the pandemic

It’s no secret that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for hand sanitizer spiked. In order to meet this demand, new actors came onto the market: beauty companies, CBD manufacturers, and, yes, even distilleries like us.

What fewer people may realize is that during this time the regulations related to hand sanitizer became more lax, particularly in the U.S. The move made sense at a time when store shelves were emptied and 24-packs of Purell were selling for as much as $400. But as outlined in a recent piece from Wired, this move came with consequences.

The regulations, which included rules on everything from record keeping to packaging, were relaxed on March 20, 2020. Among other things, “The FDA paused the requirement…that sanitizer be sourced from pharmaceutical-grade ethanol, which is free of industrial toxins that are commonly found in fuel-grade ethanol,” according to Wired’s report. Businesses were still expected to test their sanitizers for benzene and other toxic compounds, but it was essentially an honour system. “The FDA noted that it did ‘not intend to take action against firms’ for violations during the public health emergency.’”

In the ensuing weeks thousands of reports were filed at poison control centres across the U.S. after people were exposed to methanol, a highly toxic form of alcohol used in antifreeze that can cause skin and lung irritation, nausea, vomiting, headache, or worse. For one brand, 44 of 260 batches of sanitizer were found to have eight times the legal limit of benzene, “a widely used industrial chemical derived from petroleum, can be absorbed through the skin and is known to be a risk factor for leukemia.”

As a result of these reports, the FDA (and Health Canada) began keeping lists of hundreds of hand sanitizer deemed unsafe. But notably, these regulators did not — and do not — have the authority to pull them from store shelves. Even now that pre-pandemic regulations are back in effect, many of these sanitizers are still available in stores.

There are also growing still concerns about the storage and handling of leftover sanitizer. In September 2021, in an unmarked warehouse in Los Angeles, thousands of bottles of unused hand sanitizers were ignited in a fire that consumed an area the size of a city block. According to Wired, it took 17 hours and 200 firefighters to extinguish the blaze. In the ensuing weeks the the air became contaminated with hydrogen sulphide after pollutants from the fire depleted oxygen levels in the local water channels allowing for the conditions to create the toxin. Air quality deteriorated to such a point that some residents needed to be relocated and others reported symptoms including nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath even indoors. The hand sanitizer company responsible for the fire — the same one whose sanitizer was contaminated with benzene — was fined and it is no longer selling products online but, according to Wired, it is still available in stores.

It’s still important to source your sanitizer from a company you can rely on. When we founded Ethisan, we were not only committed to adhering to Health Canada regulations but to dispose of our sanitizer responsibly, and offer products that are both effective and safe. Our proprietary formula is made with just seven ingredients, including food-grade ethanol.

Browse our products to learn more.