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Hand sanitizer was one of the most sought-after products on the market, even before the coronavirus outbreak

Vox.com logo Vox.com 3/5/2020 Sabrina Maddeaux
a close up of a hand: Stores across the world are selling out of hand sanitizer. © Getty Images Stores across the world are selling out of hand sanitizer.

Everyone wants a bottle of hand sanitizer. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to buy one. Covid-19 fears have turned the once unremarkable, goopy product into something of a Holy Grail.

Local Walmarts and pharmacies are sold out. Google searches have skyrocketed. On Amazon, major brand names like Purell and Germ-X are either out of stock or available at ridiculously inflated prices. Stores are rationing product as panicked customers try to stock up. According to market researchers at Adobe Analytics, demand for hand sanitizer has gone up 1,400 percent from December to January.

In Asia, hand sanitizer is so scarce that “anti-coronavirus bouquets” with mini bottles of disinfectant nestled between red roses were a coveted Valentine’s Day gift. The South Korean government instituted penalties up to $42,000 or two years in prison for anyone found hoarding hand sanitizer. Shortages in Thailand spurred health authorities to encourage citizens to make their own sanitizer.

Demand for hand sanitizer has gone up 1,400 percent since January

In mid-February, the FBI preemptively ordered $40,000 worth of hand sanitizer and face masks in case of an outbreak in the US.

In 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak that began in Wuhan, China — also known as coronavirus — the global hand sanitizer market was projected to be worth over $5.5 billion by 2024. Now hand sanitizer has become one of the most sought-after products on the planet.

But hand sanitizer is not a cure-all. In January, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent Purell’s parent company Gojo Industries a warning letter to demand they stop making unproven claims that Purell can eliminate Ebola, MRSA, or the flu. Only products approved as pharmaceutical drugs can legally make those sorts of claims, not over-the-counter topical anesthetics. However, marketing semantics aside, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does recommend using hand sanitizer as a way to avoid getting sick.

According to the CDC, the most effective sanitizers are alcohol-based with at least 60 percent alcohol content. They work by dissolving microbes’ protective outer layer, which kills them.

Hand sanitizer isn’t fully effective unless you use it properly, which many people do not. The CDC says users should apply the amount indicated by a product’s directions to one palm then rub it all over the surfaces of both hands until they’re dry. If you wipe sanitizer off your hands, it won’t be fully effective and may allow some bacteria to escape and potentially mutate.

Hand sanitizer’s rise comes on the tail of millennials supposedly killing bar soap, which many apparently consider disgusting and full of germs.

Hand sanitizer isn’t fully effective unless you use it properly, which many people do not

This is a misconception: For anyone other than medical practitioners moving quickly between patients, good ol’ soap and water (even bar soap!) is still the best way to decontaminate your hands by scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. This is because hand sanitizer doesn’t remove dirt, grease, some chemicals, and several types of germs, including cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile.

While the Covid-19 virus undeniably boosted sales, hand sanitizer has been on the rise for the last few years, and it would be a mistake to attribute that newfound popularity to purely utilitarian impulses. Like the ugly-duckling-turned-prom-queen in a ’90s teen movie, hand sanitizer has transformed from an astringent-smelling disinfectant into a product people are “hyperenthusiastic” about. Against all odds, it’s now actually kind of cool.

Fashionistas clutched bottles at 2020 London Fashion Week. A lavender-scented sanitizing spray went viral on TikTok, clocking over 3.4 million views. Indie hand sanitizer brands count tens of thousands of followers on Instagram.

It’s a far cry from hand sanitizer’s humble beginnings in Ohio, where Purell was invented in 1988 by family-owned soap company Gojo. The product was a money loser for over a decade because no one quite knew what to do with it. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Purell was the first hand sanitizer to make it big.

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In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised hand hygiene guidelines to recommend alcohol-based sanitizers to health care providers as the best method for decontaminating hands in many circumstances. This led to Purell becoming a staple in medical settings and restaurants. While the private company doesn’t release its financial data, in 2016 Adweek pegged Purell sales at approximately $266 million per year.

Staid industry big shots like Purell and Germ-X still dominate the market, but a new breed of sanitizer promises more than bacteria-free palms. They come in a rainbow of colors, smell delightful, and are backed by influencers. Many are vegan (as is Purell, at least), cruelty-free, and boast additional skin care benefits.

Environmentally-friendly and organic ingredients are set to go from niche to mainstream over the next few years. “One trend is organic alcohol that leaves no stickiness,” reads Goldstein Research’s global market analysis report, listing claims of some of these products. The report describes a sanitizer from EO made with “sugar cane ethanol, which is a natural disinfectant that does no harm when absorbed into skin or our ecosystem and is 99.9% effective against most common germs.” These products also aim to reduce the risk of unpleasant skin conditions sometimes caused by sanitizer use, such as contact dermatitis.

Touchland, the sanitizer spray with “skin-care grade formulas” that went viral on TikTok in early February (set to a remix of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” no less), is a hit on Instagram with over 76,500 followers. Beauty influencers post styled flat lays and shelfies of Touchland sanitizers in the company of brands like La Mer, Drunk Elephant, Glossier, and Kylie Cosmetics. (Touchland currently appears to be sold out online.)

Khloe Kardashian is a fan of the vegan, cruelty-free Olika Birdie sanitizer, known to show hers off on Snapchat. On YouTube, there’s an entire category of haul video dedicated to Bath & Body Works mini Pocketbac sanitizers, which received a packaging makeover in 2015 and are sold in an array of cutesy scents like strawberry pound cake and “unicorn petals.”

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It’s not all glamorous influencers and sparkling clean hands. There’s grave concern in the medical community about the rise of drug-resistant superbugs that aren’t affected by modern medicines. The good news is, unlike antibiotics and antiseptics, alcohol-based sanitizer does not contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Alcohol works in an entirely different fashion than antibiotics do. However, there are other concerns.

A 2018 study found that certain types of infections actually increased after the widespread installation of hand sanitizer stations in hospitals, suggesting germs may adapt to alcohol. Of particular concern are enterococcal bacteria, a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections including sepsis (a deadly blood infection).

“If you’re washing your hands less because [of] hand sanitizer … you can become a vehicle for alcohol-resistant organisms”

“If you’re washing your hands less because that alcohol-based hand sanitizer makes you feel confident that your hands are clean … you can become a vehicle for alcohol-resistant organisms,” Lance Price, founding director of George Washington University’s Antibiotic Resistance Center, said in a 2018 NPR interview.

If you don’t use enough product for long enough, some bacteria will survive and grow stronger. “Anywhere you have suboptimal contact times with the full-strength product you’re going to risk some breakthrough, or bacteria persisting,” said Tim Stinear, a molecular microbiologist who was a co-author of the 2018 study, in a release. “The ones that survive the new environment better then go on to thrive.”

The 2018 study, by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Austin Health, found some germs are “increasingly tolerant to the alcohols in widely used hospital disinfectants such as hand rub solutions.” Researchers found Enterococcus faecium strains that emerged post-2010 were 10 times more tolerant of alcohol-based sanitizers than older strains. Some alcohol-resistant bacteria strains were also found to be resistant to antibiotics.

This doesn’t mean we should stop using hand sanitizer, but it does mean we shouldn’t solely rely on hand sanitizer. For the average consumer, this translates to still washing hands vigorously and often. For hospitals, it means using additional disinfecting chemicals like chlorine.

Whimsical kitty-mermaid holders and scintillating scents like black cherry merlot shouldn’t blind us to hand sanitizer’s inherently medical nature and the importance of correct usage. We don’t want to risk finding ourselves in a dystopian medical thriller where even the most Instagrammable, gluten-free sanitizer won’t be able to save us.

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