As the world reacted to COVID-19, a series of new and urgent needs emerged. Retail customers began looking for two popular items, nonsurgical face masks and hand sanitiser, but were often frustrated by the lack of supply. Panicked buying and disrupted supply chains drove many companies to approach the problem in a new way.

From fashion houses sewing masks to alcohol distilleries creating sanitiser, it seems like everyone is producing pandemic-related products. Customers have responded eagerly, leading many retailers to stock and sell these items.  With so many new players in the market, how can retailers know that the products they offer are safe for customers to use?    

Face masks

Generallythere are three types of face masks or coverings: 

  • Respirators  respiratory protective device designed to filter airborne particles. These are personal protective equipment (PPE). 
  • Surgical masks – medical masks with liquid barrier protection. These are considered medical devices. 
  • Community masks or face coverings – masks for general public use. These include various forms of commercial masks or coverings made of textiles or other materials.  

Although some retailers may sell respirators or medical masks, many are selling fabric community masks, also referred to as face coveringsA quick perusal of any online clothing brand will show fabric masks for sale. These are also subject to legislation but less likely to be evaluated and monitored for quality, potentially risking safety and, in the case of branded masks, the brand ownerreputation. 

Manufacturers should verify the specific safety requirements for their products but global guidelines for face mask testing may leave retailers, brands and manufacturers confused or unaware of the latest requirements. One way to mitigate the risk may be for retailers to sell only masks that have been through a third-party evaluation. These independent assessments can evaluate products and packaging for characteristics such as flammability 

Further, quality assurance programs can evaluate the manufacturer’s process and provide product and facility inspections and training. Third-party face mask testing services take the complexity out of the supply chain, leaving retailers confident that the face coverings they offer for sale meet legislative requirements for consumers’ continued safety. It should be noted that some countries have initiated additional specific requirements for face coverings, so understanding the end market is essential. 

and sanitiser  

Health authorities around the globe have recommended the use of alcohol-based (ethanol or isopropyl) hand sanitisers to kill germs when soap-based washing is unavailable. The World Health Organization (WHO) provided suggested formulation guidelines as sanitiser production ramped up during the early days of the pandemic. They recommended that final formulations are at least 60% alcohol for best efficacy. 

Global regulatory requirements for producing and selling hand sanitisers are complex, and with good reason. Alcohols are highly flammable and airborne fumes can be irritating to the lungs and mucous membranes. Considered hazardous substances, they require Safety Data Sheets (SDS) that provide specific information relating to occupational safety and health during product use.

Companies such as distilleries and cosmetic manufacturers stepped up to fill the shortage gap but may be less aware of the regulatory requirements. These companies should verify the claims made by the products, which may include the alcohol content in their products, and provide SDS to retailers. Where products are making biocidal or medical claims, registration may be required. Science-backed testing and verification services can help expedite production of hand sanitisers and avoid supply chain delays. 

Contamination may also be a concern if sanitisers have an alcohol content less than 60%. Below 60%, microbes such as bacteria and moulds can grow, potentially causing illness or an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. Expanded testing should include microbiological evaluation for E. coli, salmonella, yeast and mould.

Even as countries begin to reopen their economies, it is likely that our “new normal” will include increased mask wearing and the use of hand sanitiser for the foreseeable futureMajor manufacturers have been able to close their supply gap, but retailers should be prepared to continue offering masks and hand sanitisers made by nonconventional suppliersRetailers should do what they can to protect customer health and safety. Requiring verification from independent accredited third parties can help make sure that the masks and hand sanitisers sold to customers meet all appropriate legislation and compliance requirements. 

Benefits of product safety testing and verification

While the evolving COVID-19 situation presents new challenges, UL offers critical solutions that meet emerging demands and evolving conditions in today’s retail environment. Our science-backed testing and verification services can help expedite your production of hand sanitizers and avoid supply chain delays. Our face mask testing services can help take the complexity out of your supply chain.  

Our program is designed with consumers and healthcare workers’ safety and well-being at the forefront. We remain committed to our mission of working for a safer world. 

To explore all of UL’s solutions and support tools to help you respond, reopen or resume your business, visit our website or call +44.1256.312.100.

To find out more about UL and the services they provide to the retail industry, click here.

This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.