Be careful how you market hand sanitizer, Winnipeg business owner warns after call from Health Canada

By | April 8, 2020

A Winnipeg woman is warning other small businesses they can’t market self-made hand sanitizer without Health Canada’s approval — after she got a warning of her own from the federal health agency.

Sheila Tan has owned Di Erbe Inc. since 2008. Her St. Boniface shop specializes in natural beauty and home products.

As the COVID-19 pandemic saw people racing to buy hand sanitizer, Tan thought she could start marketing her store’s hand cleanser to the masses.

But she missed an important step: she called the product a “hand sanitizer” in social media posts without authorization from the federal health regulator. 

“If you say ‘hand sanitizer’ or ‘disinfectant’ … it means that you should have proof. So claiming just the word by itself is going to be regulated by Health Canada,” said Tan. 

Sanitizers must be registered with Health Canada

Last month, Tan put up a social media post advertising her hand cleaner as hand sanitizer, and included the hashtag #covid19prevention.

Not long after that, she was contacted by someone at Health Canada warning her she was violating the rules.

“Health Canada is concerned about that hashtag, which I am guilty of,” said Tan, who immediately complied with a request to remove the offending post.

“They don’t want to see that.”

A post from Di Erbe Inc. advertising their homemade hand santizer prior to the product being authorized by Health Canada, leading to a compliance order being sent by the federal regulator. (Facebook )

She says she knew that calling a product a “sanitizer” requires Health Canada licensing, so she had been calling her product a hand cleaner, even though she says it does contain 60 per cent isopropyl alcohol — a requirement in sanitizer.

In late March, she saw a news report about the feds relaxing the rules around hand sanitizer, and took that to mean she no longer needed approval to use the label for her product.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, OK. So I can call it the hand sanitizer,'” said Tan. 

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After the conversation with Health Canada, she took the necessary steps to register her product and get a natural product number, as required by law.

“Now I can fully say that it is a hand sanitizer, but I avoid ‘COVID-19 prevention’ and stuff like that because really, there is no proof that hand sanitizer will prevent COVID-19,” said Tan.

Don’t make your own: Health Canada

Her hand sanitizer, called TLC+, is now on a list of Health Canada-approved sanitizers and skin cleansers that meet safety, effectiveness and quality requirements, which can be found here

Health Canada issued a warning last week for Canadians not to try and make hand sanitizer on their own. It said the best way to prevent the spread of infection is washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds. If that is not an option, the agency advises using a Health Canada-approved hand sanitizer that has an alcohol concentration of at least 60 per cent. 

Di Erbe is just one of the dozens of companies that received compliance orders from Health Canada, as the federal regulator cracks down on health products and advertisements that claim to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19.

Those ordered to comply with Canada’s Food and Drug Act — which regulates the production, sale and advertising of health products — include an eBay seller, health stores, a pharmacy, Radio-Canada (which received a compliance notice for an article it posted about one of the companies), and a woman selling face masks on her Instagram account with just under 500 followers.

Health Canada released the list to CBC News this week, noting that while all the 27 orders on the list had been resolved, an undisclosed number of companies have “outstanding issues.”

“Details about those cases cannot be shared as Health Canada is working with these companies to resolve outstanding issues,” a Health Canada spokesperson said in a prepared statement.

Missing from that list is a Winnipeg acupuncturist caught on hidden camera claiming a Chinese tea he makes in his clinic would prevent COVID-19.

Health Canada says it plans to publish, and regularly update, a list of all complaints related to health products making false or misleading claims that have been addressed by the department.

Public plays role in alerting Health Canada: expert

Lorian Hardcastle, a University of Calgary assistant law professor who specializes in health regulations, says given Health Canada’s limited resources, it is doing a decent job cracking down on these companies. 

But the public plays an important role in bringing these claims to the regulator’s attention, she said.

Lorian Harcastle, a law professor at the University of Calgary, says members of the public need to make a report to Health Canada when they see false claims for health products. (Tahirih Foroozan/CBC)

“Health Canada can’t be at all corners of the internet at all times, knowing what people are receiving in their mailboxes or stuck to their door,” she said.

Tan agrees there should be a crackdown on companies making false claims, but fears that won’t happen unless the federal regulator takes a more proactive approach.

“They’re not going to police people. They go by reports. So if this company is not being reported and they’re making that claim, they’re never going to get caught,” said Tan.

Health Canada encourages anyone with information on potentially false and misleading advertising, or unauthorized sale of health products, to make a report.

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