It's safe to say we've never relied on cleaning products' ability to do their job more than now, during a pandemic with no definitive end in sight.
With the major brands selling out of their sanitizers and cleaning products for weeks at a time, people have been forced to purchase lesser-known brands, many of which are mislabeled and contain harmful ingredients that are not safe for use on human skin, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
While the World Health Organization has strict guidelines around the proper recipe for safe hand sanitizer, the ingredients required have been in high demand and extremely low supply, says Celina Nadelman, MD, a board-certified cytopathologist in Los Angeles.
"Product shortages have caused smaller companies to experiment with different alcohols, such as methanol, to make hand sanitizer, which is extremely toxic to the human nervous system," Dr. Nadelman says. "Even though methanol is similar in name to ethanol — the proper form of alcohol needed — they are extremely different in their makeup."
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Exposure to too much methanol can lead to a slew of unpleasant symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, blurred vision, blindness, seizures and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It's not just hand sanitizer ingredients that have been sparse. All of the key active ingredients that go into cleaning wipes are also in tight supply.
When companies try to cut corners by making their own substitutions that have not gone through the normal rigorous screening by the EPA, people can be put at risk, notes Dr. Nadelman. "We don't have any evidence of how efficacious these off-brand products are," she adds.
Whether you purchased hand sanitizer or cleaning products by a lesser-known brand or simply want to be careful moving forward as you bulk up your supply, here are five warning signs that could indicate a cleaning product is ineffective or, worse, unsafe.
1. It Contains Less Than 60 Percent Alcohol
The CDC recommends that hand sanitizers, cleaning sprays and cleaning wipes all contain at least 60 percent alcohol to ensure they are effective at protecting against viruses such as COVID-19.
"Germs are killed from alcohol through dehydration, therefore, alcohol lower than [the recommended amount] may be ineffective in killing COVID-19," Dr. Nadelman says.
2. The Ingredient List Includes Methanol
As we noted above, methanol is a dangerous ingredient that should not be used on human skin.
Check the ingredient lists of the cleaning products you plan to purchase to make sure they don't contain this alcohol. Instead, look for safe alcohol names, such as isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and ethyl alcohol (ethanol).
If there are no ingredients listed, Dr. Nadelman recommends avoiding the product altogether.
3. You’ve Never Heard of — or Seen — the Brand Before
While this was a challenging feat, especially in the earlier stages of the pandemic, one of the best things you can do to ensure you're not using harmful cleaning ingredients is to stick with brands you know and trust.
"Don't use any unusual-looking bottles, or bottles that could easily be opened by a child, as these have clearly not gone through the rigorous testing processes set by the CDC and EPA," Dr. Nadelman says. "If you cannot find the EPA-approved Clorox or Lysol cleaners on the shelf, you will need to do some digging into the [available] products and the active ingredients."
Luckily, the EPA has a list you can use to check if an active ingredient is approved as an antimicrobial. All products on this List N are known to kill the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) when used according to the instructions on the label.
4. It Smells Like a Mixed Drink
If a hand sanitizer or cleaning product you've purchased reeks of tequila, vodka or another spirit you might indulge in during a night out with friends, it may not be completely up to safety or efficiency standards, warns Dr. Nadelman.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when hand sanitizers were in short supply, liquor distilleries started getting into the business of making products aimed at killing the coronavirus.
The FDA certainly didn't discourage the making of these ethanol-based cleaning ingredients. In fact, in March 2020 it outlined a policy for creating it, titled Temporary Policy for Preparation of Certain Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer Products During the Public Health Emergency (COVID-19).
But any distillery or other type of company that followed these guidelines, Dr. Nadelman says, would avoid creating a product that smells like something you would be served at a bar. In other words, if it smells like tequila, don't use it.
5. It Doesn’t Have a Drug Facts Box Showing the Active Ingredient
In addition to this Drug Facts box, a cleaning product or hand sanitizer should state its purpose and the quantity of its ingredients, says Bob Reynolds, senior director of technical services at Zep, a leading innovator, producer and distributor of maintenance, cleaning and sanitation solutions.
"Products for disinfecting or sanitizing surfaces (not skin) are regulated by the EPA and should have an EPA registration number clearly visible on the package label," he says. "Other than these two clues, check the FDA recall list for hand sanitizers or do a little research (consumer help lines, web-based customer feedback and such) on a disinfectant or cleaner whenever there are concerns or suspicions about a product's safety or performance."
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- FDA updates on hand sanitizers consumers should not use
- WHO-recommended Handrub Formulations
- Celina Nadelman, M.D., board certified cytopathologist and Fine Needle Aspiration Specialist in Los Angeles
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Detailed Disinfection Guidance
- EPA List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19)
- Temporary Policy for Preparation of Certain Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer Products During the Public Health Emergency (COVID-19)
- Bob Reynolds, Senior Director Technical Services at Zep
- Is Your Hand Sanitizer on FDA’s List of Products You Should Not Use?
- Tonya Harris, holistic nutritionist, Environmental Toxicity Specialist and the creator of the Slightly Greener Method