While the demand has calmed down since the early days of the pandemic, hand sanitiser sales is still three times more than last year
2020 will go down as the year in which hand sanitisers finally became a mainstream product in Bangladesh.
The product, which comes in the form of liquid, gel or foam removes common pathogens from the hands without rinsing with soap and water, have been widespread in much of the Western world since the last decade following the swine flu pandemic in 2009 due to its convenience in infection control.
But in Bangladesh, it never really took off, with only Square, ACI and Reckitt-Benckiser manufacturing them in small quantities, mainly for medical use.
And then coronavirus arrived on these shores in March, leading to a crush of demand for the rarely-used product.
Most health officials and disease specialists say one of the best preventive measures against the coronavirus or any other outbreak is frequent washing of hands using soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
But if soap and water are not available, hand sanitiser can be used as long as it contains at least 60 per cent alcohol and the gel is squirted onto the hands and rubbed briskly all over for about 20 seconds.
Regardless, that did not stop people rushing to the stores to stockpile on hand sanitisers, in Bangladesh and elsewhere.
The three brands scrambled to ramp up production, but the overwhelming clamour for the alcohol-based no-rinse hand washes left them breathless.
The supermarkets and pharmacies tried to play their part in taming the demand, rationing one bottle for each customer so that a larger number of people could have the product, which could come in handy in fighting the lethal pathogen.
“With the outbreak of Covid-19 in March in Bangladesh, there was a huge jump in demand for products such as hand wash, hand sanitiser and disinfectant spray,” said Jesmin Zaman, head of marketing at Square Toiletries.
Square sells hand sanitisers and disinfectant sprays under the brand name of Sepnil.
The mad rush continued until June.
“We saw about ten times the growth in sales.”
The demand has now come down to one-fourth the frenetic levels seen in March.
“But still the sales are three times that of last year,” Zaman added.
The skyrocketing demand for the acrid elixir meant many companies sensed there was a killing to be made.
Companies like Unilever, Marico, Berger Paints, Kohinoor Chemicals, Keya Cosmetics, Women’s World, distiller Carew & Co., Eskayef Pharmaceuticals, Incepta, Beximco, ACME Laboratories, Ibn Sina, Popular Pharma and a slew of other companies rolled out their own versions of hand sanitisers.
“Handwashing is now a lifesaving habit, and we have brought Lifebuoy Hand Rub as well as Hand Sanitiser for Bangladesh consumers amid the pandemic,” said Ruhul Quddus, supply chain director of Unilever Bangladesh.
Unilever has also launched anti-bacterial hand cream, Vaseline Anti-Bac Hand Crème made with 100 per cent recyclable packaging.
“Since the beginning of the COVID outbreak Unilever Bangladesh is working tirelessly to produce its life-essential products like liquid and bar soaps, detergents, toilet cleaning products and delivering those to consumers’ doorstep,” Quddus added.
Another multinational company Marico brought out its hand sanitiser and hand wash products in record time in April.
“We believe that as a responsible corporate this is the least we can do to help consumers protect themselves during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Ashish Gopal, managing director of Marico Bangladesh, adding that the products were being sold on a no-profit basis for the first six months.
Hand sanitisers, as part of personal hygiene, have been playing an important role in preventing the spread of coronavirus, said AKM Sadeque Nawaj, general manager for marketing at Berger Paints Bangladesh.
“And being one of the oldest and renowned companies of the country, we believe it is our responsibility to contribute as much as possible during such a situation. The introduction of Berger Mr Expert Advanced Hand Sanitiser is part of that endeavour,” he added.
Many though failed to maintain either of the two alcohol-based sanitiser formulations recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to prevent the spread of coronavirus as not all formulations are effective.
Mobile courts banned a host of these products.
Then in October, a mobile court of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) fined ACI Tk 1 crore for using harmful methanol, which can cause death, in its Savlon-branded hand sanitiser, and had ordered the removal of the products from the market within 48 hours.
ACI’s other hand sanitiser brand, Hexisol, which comes in liquid form, was found to meet the standards.
“Before the pandemic, our product Hexisol, a hand rub, was used mostly by the doctors. But after the pandemic, it has turned into a mass product as people grabbed it to disinfect them, which pushed up the demand sharply,” said Quamrul Hassan, business director of ACI.
The product’s sales have increased exponentially, he added.
Whether the product’s popularity continues well past the pandemic remains very much to be seen.
“Further growth or the sustainability of growth will depend on peoples’ habits. If they retain the habit of hygiene and maintain health safety, it will continue to grow,” Zaman said.