Alcohol Grades and Sanitizer Recalls

In the spring of 2020, unprecedented demand for alcohol-based hand sanitizers in Canada lead to a large number of new products being made available to consumers.  The Canadian government loosened import restrictions and granted approval for a select number of companies to produce hand sanitizer using technical grade ethanol.  

Prior to the pandemic, ethanol based hand sanitizers were mandated to be produced with pharmaceutical grade (USP) ethanol and higher quality ethanol products.  GNS (Grain Neutral Spirits) and FCC (Food Chemical Codex) grades have lower concentrations of impurities than USP grade, so these grades have always been acceptable in hand sanitizer products. 

The largest use of ethanol in North America is as a blend stock for gasoline.  All Canadian jurisdictions mandate that ethanol must be present in gasoline, and because this technical-grade or fuel-grade alcohol is simply burned in automobile engines, higher concentrations of impurities are allowed.  Because of it's large ongoing demand as a fuel additive, technical grade ethanol is the most readily available grade of ethanol.  

Alberta Health Services has a good discussion of the risks associated with using Technical grade hand sanitizers here.  Essentially, technical grade ethanol can contain higher concentrations of acetaldehyde than what is allowed in USP and higher grades.  Airborne exposure to acetaldehyde should be limited, particularly by pregnant and breast-feeding women, but studies linked in the AHS report show that risk is very low because the airborne concentration of acetaldehyde is very low, even when technical grade hand sanitizer is used multiple times per hour.    

Recently, many headlines have been dedicated to hand sanitizer recalls in Canada.  In reading the explanation and looking through the recall list, it's clear that many of the recalls are administrative in nature; associated with unauthorized sale of sanitizer (no NPN or DIN), unauthorized use of technical grade alcohol, use of technical grade alcohol without proper warning labels.  Some of the recalls that are more concerning are the ones associated with the presence of ethyl acetate and methanol denaturants.  

Best plan is to look for hand sanitizers that are made with pharmaceutical or food grade alcohol, and ensure that they have the NPN clearly identified on the packaging.

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