Hand Sanitizer Safety

An Important Safety Message Regarding Hand Sanitizer

April 5, 2021

Harvard University has learned through recent press coverage that a private pharmaceutical testing company has detected benzene in some brands of hand sanitizer.

Although the FDA recently allowed low levels of benzene in hand sanitizer, certain batches of these brands have been found to exceed those interim limits. Long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to an increased risk for certain types of cancer.

Out of an abundance of caution, Harvard is asking the University community to stop using and distributing the listed hand sanitizers (page 14 though page 16).

  • Some schools and departments recently purchased artnaturals brand hand sanitizer through Harvard’s COVID-19 supply warehouse. If you have, please stop distributing this product. Harvard University Campus Services and Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) will arrange for pick-up.

  • If you have any brand of hand sanitizer from the list, please stop using it, return it to your facility or building manager, or contact contact EH&S for advice on next steps.

Please forward this message to anyone in your local community as necessary. If you have any questions and need assistance please contact ehs@harvard.edu.

Why is Harvard University advising to suspend use of some hand sanitizers?

Harvard University became aware through recent press coverage that benzene, a contaminant classified as a carcinogen, had been found in specific lots of certain brands of hand sanitizer.

Have the products been recalled by the manufacturers, distributors, or the FDA? If not, why is Harvard University asking that we not use certain products?

No. As of April 4, 2021, there have been no product recalls issued for benzene in hand sanitizer.

In 2020, to enable companies to meet the purchasing demands for alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the FDA announced an interim 2 ppm benzene concentration limit for aqueous alcohol-based hand sanitizer for the duration of the pandemic emergency. Some of Valisure’s listed benzene-containing products exceed the FDA limit, while others do not.

Which brands of hand sanitizer are suspected of containing benzene?

The pharmacy Valisure tested about 260 products and found benzene exceeding 2 ppm in approximately 20 products.

Review Valisure’s listed products in which benzene was detected by their lab.

Valisure has petitioned the FDA to issue a product recall and change its interim benzene limit, which applies during the declared COVID-19 pandemic emergency.

Why is Harvard University asking that I suspend use of hand sanitizers with benzene concentration below the FDA limit of 2 ppm?

EH&S believes that it is prudent to minimize exposure to benzene, a carcinogen for which there is no corresponding exposure or product benefit.

Products containing benzene below the analytical limit of detection are available and should be substituted.

Although hand sanitizer can help prevent the spread of the virus, practicing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) proper hand-washing technique of washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds is considered to be more effective.

Did Harvard University’s Campus Warehouse distribute any of the brands that contained benzene?

Harvard University Procurement reviewed the list of products it purchased for pandemic response and found only one brand, artnaturals, on the list. Artnaturals had lot(s) that exceeded the FDA interim emergency threshold of 2 ppm of benzene.

Harvard University Procurement is notifying the departments that have purchased from the Campus Warehouse.

Could other departments at Harvard University have distributed brands that contained benzene?

Individual schools or departments may have purchased alcohol-based hand sanitizer from sources other than the Campus Warehouse.

The products containing benzene were distributed not only to Harvard University and institutional clients, but also to retail chains and through a vast network of distributors that emerged to address high demand for hand sanitizers that were needed for pandemic response.

This is why EH&S is asking facility managers to communicate with those in their buildings that may have purchased alcohol-based hand sanitizer from a source other than Harvard University’s Campus Warehouse.

Should I check hand sanitizers that I purchased for myself or my family?

Yes. We recommend you check supplies at home, especially if children are using them and could ingest them.

When you check the list and images you will see that some sanitizers branded with children's movie characters and colors contained elevated concentrations of benzene.

Is benzene dangerous?

Benzene is a hazardous chemical and a carcinogen and exposures should be kept to a minimum, which is why we are asking everyone not to use these products.

However, please be aware that benzene does exist in the environment and that common potential exposures to benzene include automotive gasoline stations and cigarette smoke.

How much of an increased health risk is there if I used these products?

The additional potential exposure to benzene risk to your health is very low and only a small fraction of benzene would have been absorbed.

The dermal absorption value (percent of applied dose) is estimated as 0.05 ± 0.05 in humans (Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interim acute exposure guideline levels estimate).

If you have concerns you may consult with your Primary Care Provider (PCP). Another option is to consult with an occupational and environmental medicine physician, which can be arranged through EH&S.

Note that if used excessively, other hand sanitizer ingredients (e.g., ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, soaps) can cause skin problems.

Is Harvard University going to distribute new hand sanitizer?

Harvard University is working to test alcohol-based hand sanitizer in its Campus Services Warehouse before issuing replacements for the artnaturals product. More information will be forthcoming.

In the interim, it is recommended that you use other brands or use soap and water to clean your hands. Although hand sanitizer can help prevent the spread of the virus, practicing the CDC’s proper hand-washing technique of washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds is considered to be more effective.

What should I do if I still have listed hand sanitizer brands (e.g., artnaturals, other brands not from the Campus Services Warehouse, or other units purchased for distribution at Harvard University)?

If you have bottles please return them to your facility manager or email EH&S at ehs@harvard.edu with your contact information, location, and the number of containers.

Meanwhile, we ask that you suspend use of benzene-containing hand sanitizers.

Who can test a stock of alcohol-based hand sanitizer that was not purchased from the Campus Warehouse?

EH&S can provide assistance to individual schools or departments and arrange testing. Please contact ehs@harvard.edu.

Who should be contacted with other questions?

If you have any other questions about hand sanitizers on the list or in stock or collection in your building, school, or department please contact ehs@harvard.edu.