Trying to ward off the coronavirus? What products help and what may be a waste of money

Fear of catching the coronavirus has led to panic buying of products such as face masks, hand sanitizer and disposable gloves. But health experts warn not all of these products are necessarily effective, especially when not used properly.

Old-fashioned soap and water may be your best protection during the pandemic

If you're cleaning your hands with hand sanitizer, health experts say that it must contain at least 60 per cent alcohol to be effective. (CBC/Sophia Harris)

Fear of catching the coronavirus has led to panic buying of products such as face masks, hand sanitizer and disposable gloves. But health experts warn some of these items may be ineffective, especially if they're not used properly. 

Here's what you need to know before stocking up on supplies during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Soap and sanitizer

The best way to prevent the spread of infections is to keep your hands clean, so it's no surprise that as the coronavirus spreads, stores are running out of hand sanitizer. Fortunately, old-fashioned soap and water will also do the trick. 

Microbiologist Keith Warriner said, if you're using a hand sanitizer, it must contain at least 60 per cent alcohol — the ingredient that kills the virus. 

"If you haven't got enough [alcohol] in there, it doesn't do anything. It has basically dried the virus onto your hand," said Warriner, a professor at the University of Guelph.

Even if your sanitizer has the right ingredients, Warriner still believes washing with soap provides the best protection because it washes the virus away.

"You're actually physically removing it." 

The Truth About Antibiotics: Hand Washing

4 years ago
Duration 1:53
Hand washing is a simple and effective way to remove bacteria from our hands, helping to protect ourselves, our families and others around us.

Medical microbiologist Dr. Jocelyn Srigley argues that either soap or hand sanitizer are equally effective — as long as when using either product, you cover all parts of your hands. That would include each finger, the fingernail area and the fronts and backs of your hands, all the way to your wrists. 

"If you're not following the proper technique, then it's not going to be as effective, regardless of which method you're using," said Dr. Srigley, a practising physician and professor at the University of British Columbia.

Forget the face mask?

Dr. Srigley said that face masks are best used if you are sick, and want to protect others from getting infected when you cough or sneeze.

But she said a mask won't necessarily protect you from catching the coronavirus because the main way people get it is by touching an infected surface and then touching their mouth, eyes or nose. 

She points out that people often end up touching their face when putting on, taking off or adjusting a face mask, plus it does nothing to protect a person's eyes. 

"It's actually not protecting you against the most common way the virus is spreading."

Microbiologist Keith Warriner said the coronavirus is so tiny, it can sneak through a disposable surgical mask which is typically made of paper material. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

If you still want to wear a face mask, there are two main types on the market. One is the disposable surgical mask typically made of paper material which Warriner warns is unable to completely block out the tiny coronavirus.

"It's certainly not foolproof," he said. "You can't go and stand in the middle of a room with people with coronavirus and say, 'Look at me. I'm immune to it.'"

The second type of mask is the called the N95 which has a firmer exterior. Warriner said it's effective in blocking the virus, but that many people fail to wear it properly, allowing the virus to sneak in. 

Disposable gloves

Some shoppers are also stocking up on disposable gloves, in hope gloves will protect them from picking up the virus. 

But Dr. Srigley warns that wearing gloves could provide a false sense of security where people let down their guard. 

"If you think you're protected because you're wearing a glove, but if you then touch your face with the glove, then you're at risk," she said. 

Health experts say wearing disposable gloves may give you a false sense of security, as you may touch your face with contaminated gloves. (CBC/Sophia Harris)

Removing dirty gloves without getting contaminated can also be tricky. Considering these complications, Dr. Srigley says that frequently sanitizing or washing hands is a better option. 

Stock up on vitamins?

Some Canadians are hoping they can ward off the coronavirus by boosting their immune system with vitamins or other supplements. 

People with weak or compromised immune systems face a higher risk of getting seriously ill from the virus.

Warriner said the best way to stay healthy is not by popping vitamins, but instead by staying rested and drinking plenty of liquids.

"The thing that really takes our immune system down is being dehydrated, being stressed, lack of sleep."

And when it comes to stocking up on food, people should be wary of perishables that, if they go bad, could compromise a person's health, said Warriner.

"Basically, avoid food poisoning because that knocks our immune system [out]." 

What about toilet paper?

There have been reports across the globe that people are also stockpiling toilet paper. While the product is a staple of daily hygiene, it won't help ward off the coronavirus.

Instead, the run on toilet paper is likely caused by panic buying which has caught on with many shoppers. 

Toilet paper has been a popular item at grocery stores since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada. (Richard Woodbury/CBC)

Warriner said people think "if someone's buying it, then I have to buy it." 

He also wonders whether some people may be confusing the coronavirus with the norovirus — a different virus which causes diarrhea.

WATCH | Preparing for quarantine: Tips from an expert

How to stay safe during a pandemic

3 years ago
Duration 6:37
Infection control expert Dr. Susy Hota breaks down what we need to know to protect ourselves amid the coronavirus outbreak — from taking public transit to cleaning in the kitchen.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: