Health and Science

Sales of hand sanitizer are skyrocketing due to the coronavirus, leading to rationing and price hikes

Empty shelves where hand sanitizer gels sold out in a London drug store on February 4, 2020.
Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

Demand for hand sanitizer is surging around the globe as the new coronavirus spreads, prompting retailers to ration supplies and online vendors to hike prices.

Sales of hand sanitizers and similar products have swelled across several international markets since the COVID-19 outbreak began in January. The virus, which originated in China, has now spread to more than 60 countries.

According to data published Tuesday by market research firm Kantar, U.K. hand sanitizer sales saw a year-on-year increase of 255% in February. Meanwhile, British shoppers were buying 7% more liquid hand soaps and spent 10% more on household cleaners compared to February 2019. 

British drug store chain Boots — a subsidiary of Walgreens — told CNBC via email on Tuesday it had implemented a limit of two hand sanitizers per purchase across its 2,465 stores.

Asian consumers have also been stockpiling personal hygiene goods in the wake of the outbreak, according to a report published Monday by Nielsen. Analysts found that sales in Malaysia of hand sanitizers hit almost 1 million Malaysian ringgit ($237,176) during the week ending January 26 — that's 800% higher than the country spends on the product in an average week.

Empty shelves in a Boots store on February 28, 2020 after the retailer ran out of hand sanitizer in Cardiff, Wales.
Matthew Horwood | Getty Images

In Italy, where 2,041 cases of the coronavirus and 52 deaths have been confirmed so far, sales of hand soap were up 29%, Nielsen said. Hand sanitizer sales soared by 1,807% in the week ending February 15, compared to the same week a year earlier, data showed.

Earlier this week, data from Adobe Analytics reportedly showed that demand for hand sanitizers in the U.S. spiked by 1,400% between December and January. According to Nielsen, hand sanitizer purchases in the United States were up 73% during the four weeks until February 22, with analysts predicting sales "won't peak for some time."

Texas-based grocery chain H-E-B reportedly said on Sunday it would limit customers to four hand sanitizers, wipes or similar items per purchase.

Online mark-up

"Store shelves in Taiwan, China and Japan are void of bleach (and) hand sanitizer," Neilsen analysts also noted in their report on Monday.

In Singapore, supermarkets were cleaned out of household cleaning products and hand sanitizers over the weekend. Pharmacies in the city state, where there have been more than 100 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, are also limiting how many hand sanitizers customers can buy at a time.

Online stocks of many hand sanitizer gels have sold out at Amazon, Walgreens and Walmart, with U.K. drug stores Boots and Superdrug also selling out of hand sanitizers in store and online.

The surge in demand has prompted some third-party sellers to inflate their prices on platforms including Amazon and eBay. In the U.K., a Defendol hand gel retailing at £3.49 ($4.46) in stores is being sold for £109.99 on Amazon.

Elsewhere, Italian vendors are also raising online prices. On Amazon, one seller is offering four 3 fluid-ounce bottles of sanitizer for 60 euros ($66.77), while 10 fluid-ounce bottles of Purell are selling for 80 euros on eBay.

On eBay's Singapore website, one vendor is selling two 10 fluid-ounce bottles of sanitizer for 733 Singapore dollars ($527).

Health experts have repeatedly urged the public to practice good hand hygiene since the coronavirus outbreak began. The WHO advises washing hands "regularly and thoroughly" with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub if soap is not accessible.