Americans feverishly stocked up on hand sanitizer in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, snapping up every bottle they could find and leaving shelves bare for months. Finding a bottle of Purell was like striking gold.
Well, the gold rush has ended.
Many retailers and manufacturers are now facing a surplus of hand sanitizer, so much so that they’re using discounts and giveaways to get rid of the stuff – especially off-brand products that flooded the market in the months after the pandemic began.
Meanwhile, imports of hand sanitizer, which surged last summer as industry newcomers scrambled to meet demand, have plummeted. And distilleries that had suddenly entered the hand sanitizer business have pulled back.
To be sure, demand remains elevated over pre-pandemic levels, and brand names like Purell are still performing well.
But many Americans now have more than enough hand sanitizer in the cupboards at home. Demand may also have trailed off amid an increasing recognition that COVID-19 is typically transmitted from person to person through the air, not on surfaces.
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U.S. hand sanitizer sales rose more than 620% in 2020, totaling about $1.45 billion, according to research firm NielsenIQ. But sales have fallen for several consecutive months since last year’s peak.
In January, hand sanitizer sales fell 38% compared with December.
In February, they fell 23% compared with January.
And in March, they fell 3% compared with February.
For companies like MGP Ingredients, a publicly traded distillery that increased production of alcohol for use in hand sanitizer products in 2020, the boom has faded.
“If you notice in the stores now, there’s an abundance of hand sanitizer,” MGP Ingredients CEO David Colo said in a Feb. 25 conference call.
So much sanitizer at stores
At the nation’s largest retailers, the shelves are well stocked with hand sanitizer these days. Too well stocked in some cases.
Drugstore chain CVS, which has nearly 10,000 locations, has donated excess hand sanitizer to community groups and provided discounts to customers, including through its ExtraCare Rewards loyalty program.
“Indeed, 2020 brought unprecedented consumer demand for a number of items including hand sanitizer, and we took the necessary steps to meet and exceed those demand levels,” CVS spokesman Matt Blanchette said in an email. “Current demand is still higher than pre-pandemic, but has decreased since its height, creating some surplus.”
Walmart has donated 1.3 million cases of hand sanitizer to a network of more than 350 nonprofits, schools and governmental organizations, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“In addition, in many locations we are providing a free bottle of hand sanitizer to customers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in our pharmacies,” Walmart spokesperson Tricia Moriarty said in an email.
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Deals are out there for shoppers, too.
Amazon is selling 12-packs of 8-ounce bottles of Germ-X for $15.95, Target has a buy-one-get-one-free deal on Suave hand sanitizers, and Walgreens is offering a BOGO free deal for an Honest hand sanitizer spray.
In addition to distilleries, other companies that pivoted their facilities to make hand sanitizer have also been making donations of excess supplies.
At one point in the early stages of the pandemic, Pompano Beach, Florida-based beauty products maker Kira Labs was partnering with another supplier to deliver a full truckload a day, or 16 million ounces, of its antimicrobial hand wash to health care workers treating COVID-19 patients at New York City’s Javits Center field hospital.
That sort of demand has dried up. Kira Labs recently announced plans to donate 1 million tubes of Medyskin Hand Sanitizer, a product it ramped up in 2020. Recipients have included Orange County, a local chapter of the Salvation Army and the Boys & Girls Club of St. Lucie County.
“The dramatic demand for hand sanitizer and then the subsequent shift in focus toward masks has seen a surplus in sanitizer supply,” Kira Labs CEO David Rosen said in an email. “We hope that if other businesses find themselves with excess supply they follow our lead and look to give back to their communities and support a healthy environment for all.”
At consumer goods maker Unilever, which launched hand sanitizers in more than 60 markets in 2020 under brands like Suave, “demand for hand sanitizer started to normalize” in the fourth quarter compared to “the exponential growth” from earlier in the year, chief financial officer Graeme Pitkethly told investors in a Feb. 4 conference call.
Meanwhile, imports of hand sanitizer have plunged from 9,000 containers in July to 274 in March, according to Ocean Audit, a company that tracks international shipping trends.
It was unusual to import hand sanitizer to begin with since “it’s a pretty simple formula to make here,” Ocean Audit CEO Steve Ferreira said in an email.
What now for hand sanitizer makers?
The brand-name makers of hand sanitizer will be fine.
Rishi Dhingra, chief marketing officer at Purell maker Gojo, said industry-wide demand remains about two to three times higher than before the pandemic.
“Due to the pandemic, we see a sustained increase in awareness of the importance of safe and effective hygiene practices across all markets and product categories,” Dhingra said in an emailed response to questions.
But many off-brand makers are likely in rough shape, Ferreira said.
“A lot of low budget/no name hand sanitizer was imported – best chances these are the ones being donated/sold in bulk for pennies,” he wrote.
The import rush was so crazed that some of it was dangerous.
In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration flagged more than 130 potentially dangerous or ineffective hand sanitizers that flooded the market since the outbreak.
The agency warned in January that hand sanitizer imported from Mexico could be tainted with dangerous chemicals or not work effectively.
For the first time ever, it issued a countrywide import alert for an entire category of products, saying that “all alcohol-based hand sanitizers from Mexico” must be flagged to “stop products that appear to be in violation from entering the U.S. until the agency is able to review the products’ safety.”
The move came after the agency last year identified what it called a “sharp increase” in hand sanitizer from Mexico that tested positive for methanol.
Methanol, or wood alcohol, “can be toxic when absorbed through the skin and life-threatening when ingested,” the FDA reported.
An FDA assessment of alcohol-based hand sanitizer imported from Mexico concluded that 84% of the studied samples were not in compliance with U.S. standards. More than half had toxic ingredients.
“Last year, there was an influx of hundreds of off-brand hand sanitizers, many jumping into the category for the first time with no experience in manufacturing OTC products,” Purell’s Dhingra said. “Many of those sanitizer brands have already left the space.”
You can follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.