FDA warns Purell to stop claiming hand sanitizers help kill the flu, Ebola and MRSA

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration fired off a warning letter to the parent company of Purell, Gojo Industries, over the hand sanitizers’ health claims — mainly, that using Purell Healthcare Advanced hand sanitizers can eliminate several serious viruses, including the flu, Ebola and MRSA.

In the letter, the FDA calls out Purell’s marketing claims: “These statements, made in the context of the Frequently Asked Questions section, clearly indicate your suggestion that Purell Healthcare Advanced Hand Sanitizers are intended for reducing or preventing disease from the Ebola virus, norovirus, and influenza. As such, the statements are evidence of your products’ intended uses.”

On Purell’s site under FAQs, the hand sanitizer maker does note that “the FDA does not allow hand sanitizer brands to make viral claims,” but then goes on to explain, for example, that “influenza is an enveloped virus,” which “in general are easily killed or inactivated by alcohol” found in hand sanitizers.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infections did find that ethanol, which is in Purell at 80 percent concentration, was highly effective against 21 different enveloped viruses.

However, a 2019 study that looked at ethanol-based disinfectants’ ability to kill the influenza A virus (IVA) revealed that its “effectiveness against IAV in mucus was extremely reduced.” The researchers found it took almost four minutes for the hand sanitizer to eliminate the flu virus compared to simply washing hands with an antiseptic cleanser, which worked in 30 seconds, according to Reuters.

The FDA sent a warning letter to Purell's parent company, Gojo Industries, over their marketing claims that the hand sanitizer could kill viruses such as the flu and Ebola. (Photo: Getty Images)
The FDA sent a warning letter to Purell's parent company, Gojo Industries, over their marketing claims that the hand sanitizer could kill viruses such as the flu and Ebola. (Photo: Getty Images)

That may be one of the reasons why the FDA questioned the proof behind Purell’s claims, stating in the letter: “However, FDA is currently not aware of any adequate and well-controlled studies demonstrating that killing or decreasing the number of bacteria or viruses on the skin by a certain magnitude produces a corresponding clinical reduction in infection or disease caused by such bacteria or virus.”

The agency also calls out Purell’s claims that using their products “are effective in reducing illness or disease-related student and teacher absenteeism,” saying the statements “go beyond merely describing the general intended use of a topical antiseptic.”

The best way to get clean hands

Peter Gulick, an infectious disease specialist with the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the alcohol in hand sanitizers is toxic enough to handle enveloped viruses, but says that “the FDA wants to be really certain and really careful of how [products] word things.”

Gulick says that washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent yourself from getting sick. “Wash your hands as often as you can,” he says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that it doesn’t matter whether the water is warm or cold, and recommends scrubbing your hands for 20 seconds (the equivalent of singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.)

He adds, “Avoid putting your hands in your mouth or eyes — areas where you can transmit the viruses — and stay away from people who are coughing.”

As far as hand sanitizers go, Gulick says that they’re a good option when you’re in a pinch. “If you're in an environment where you don’t have a sink with soap and water, then that would be the next best thing,” he says. “If you don’t have soap and water, these hand sanitizers are better than just having nothing at all.”

In the meantime, Purell’s parent company has 15 working days to correct the situation, with the FDA noting that “failure to promptly correct these violations may result in legal action without further notice, including, without limitation, seizure and injunction.”

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