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Worrying levels of some impurities in hand sanitizers, chemists find

High levels of acetaldehyde in some alcohol-based hand rubs exceed even relaxed regulations

by Laura Howes
April 15, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 14


A woman applying alcohol gel to her hands.
Credit: Shutterstock
Hand sanitizer sales have boomed during the pandemic, but some products have high levels of impurities.

As COVID-19 case numbers grew during the pandemic, so did the market for alcohol-based hand sanitizers. With demand outstripping supply, many companies stepped up to make the product or its key ingredient, ethanol, which dismantles the COVID-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus particles. Regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada also relaxed regulations in response to the pandemic so that alcohols such as technical-grade ethanol, with higher levels of specific contaminants than the typical pharmaceutical-grade ethanol, could be used for hand sanitizers. But in a recorded talk played at ACS Spring 2021, a meeting of the American Chemical Society, Timothy J. Tse of the University of Saskatchewan reported that some hand sanitizers have worrying levels of impurities. Tse presented the data (Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18073766), during a talk in the Division of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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Tse and colleagues Fina B. Nelson and Martin J. T. Reaney used gas-chromatography flame-ionization detection to analyze 42 different alcohol-based hand sanitizers (26 were liquids and 16 were gels). Of those, 11 of the samples exceeded Health Canada’s interim guidelines for levels of acetaldehyde, a potentially carcinogenic compound. The team also found impurities they could not identify because they did not have reference compounds for comparison. Tse said these might not cause health problems, but more vigilant monitoring is required to ensure the hand sanitizers for sale are safe and effective.



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