With the coronavirus outbreak pushing much of Australia to be cautious of hand hygiene, hand sanitisers have flown off the shelf. What many might not know, however, is that not all hand sanitisers offer the same virus-killing guarantee.
There are a number of hand sanitisers out on the market in Australia but you'll need to pay more attention to the label if you want to know what guarantee you're getting out of it.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australia's peak medical products watchdog, said hand sanitisers fell into two categories depending on their claims — cosmetic or therapeutic.
If a sanitiser is intended as a cosmetic product, it doesn't need to be regulated by the TGA but if it reads 'hospital grade' on the label, the sanitiser will need to go through a more stringent approval process with the TGA.
The difference between hospital grade hand sanitisers and cosmetic options
So, what's the difference between a sanitiser that's labelled as 'hospital grade' and one that's not? TGA said the main difference is that the product's assertions as a medical-grade good had to be tested first.
"Depending on the way a product is presented for supply and advertised, a claim of 'hospital grade' may convey that the product is intended to be used in a hospital or healthcare setting," a TGA spokesperson said to Lifehacker Australia over email.
"If this is the case, the product is required to be regulated as a therapeutic good."
TGA looks at the quality of a product as well as the effectiveness of its claims. It evaluates the data or research provided by the product's manufacturers to see if it lives up to its intended purposes — in this case, if a hand sanitiser could be used in a hospital setting.
"Hand sanitisers regulated as medicines are individually evaluated by the TGA for quality, safety and effectiveness before they can be imported into, supplied in, or exported from Australia," the TGA spokesperson said.
"The claims permitted on the labels of such products is based on the proposed use of the product and the data that has been provided to support the safety and effectiveness of the product."
TGA also explained sanitisers that claim to work against low-level bacteria or germs (for example, kills 99.9 per cent of germs) and don't mention being effective against viruses are not regulated by the TGA and often contain low-risk ingredients.
It is not to say cosmetic hand sanitisers are not effective, it just means they have not been tested by the TGA. While they do kill up to 99.9 per cent of 'germs' and bacteria, any claims beyond this haven't been proven by the TGA. Put it this way, they would not be used in a hospital setting.
Sanitisers adhering to these percentages have been found to be effective against a range of viruses including other coronviruses such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Any hand sanitiser, homemade or store-bought, containing less than 60 per cent alcohol is not as effective.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended hand sanitisers with more than 60 per cent alcohol be used when washing your hands with soap is unavailable.
Outside of the product's claims, TGA said that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission handles the regulation of labelling while National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) regulated the chemicals used within the sanitisers.
While commercial supplies were still hard to find for many of us on the ground, it's worthwhile checking and taking into consideration if the product you're buying claims to be hospital grade or not. Especially, if it's charging more than the regular price for it.
A spike in coronavirus cases around the world in recent weeks has caused droves of Australians to strip shelves bare of certain products. Toiler paper is an obvious one but hand sanitiser is also in short supply and some stores, like a Priceline in Sydney, have managed to procure supplies and are selling them for exorbitant prices.