Buying hand sanitizer in my local pharmacy

In mid-May, I enter my local pharmacy in Berlin-Neukölln to buy hand sanitizer. Right next to the cashier a handwritten sign announces the sale of hand sanitizers: 100 ml for 5 EUR, 200 ml for 10 EUR. I ask for a small bottle, telling the pharmacist that hand sanitizers are still unavailable at dm, a large drugstore chain in Germany. The pharmacist tells me that I shouldn’t rely on the hand sanitizer offered there, because they are merely bactericidal, not virucidal. It simply doesn’t affect the coronavirus. In contrast, their hand sanitizer is based on the recommendation of the WHO. I ask about the ingredients and he explains that it is basically alcohol mixed with water; they used propanol to reduce skin dehydration. He explains that in order to be effective and similar to hand-washing, hand sanitizer has to be rubbed until completely absorbed, for about thirty seconds.

I ask when they started producing hand sanitizers? He explains that they used to produce hand sanitizers, but a couple of years ago, due to a change in regulations, were no longer allowed to do so. On March 4, the Federal Office for Chemicals issued a new decree in reaction to the spread of Covid-19, which allowed pharmacies to produce their own hand sanitizers once more. Ever since, this decree has been updated several times and most recently also includes the right to produce surface sanitizers.

In early March, he recounts, they hardly managed to produce and bottle sanitizers in sufficient numbers and even alcohol was increasingly difficult to come by. Indeed, in mid-March, the business magazine Capital reported that breweries and cosmetic firms world-wide started producing hand sanitizers to help ease the shortage.

Throughout March, my local pharmacy sold four items almost exclusively, the pharmacist tells me: Paracetamol, hand sanitizers, gloves, and facial masks. Now things are returning back to normal, the pharmacist says.

Their hand sanitizer comes in a plain white plastic bottle with a printed label on it. The production and expiry dates are hand written: according to the label, mine was produced on April 29, 2020 and is best before April 29, 2021. It has an acrid smell to it.


Author: Claudia Liebelt

Claudia Liebelt (PhD, Halle, 2010) is Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Bayreuth. She currently holds a Heisenberg Position on “Gender, Body, Beauty: Transnational Formations of the Self,” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Her research foci are in the Anthopology of the Body and the Senses, Political Anthropology, Gender and Sexualities, Care and Intimate Labour, as well as Islam and Secularity. She is especially interested in debates on the biopolitics of beauty and hygiene, embodied normativities, postsecularism and new materialities, with a regional focus on the Middle East and Northern Africa.

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