People are panicked about the coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, which has caused some basic necessities such as water, toilet paper, and non-perishable foods to sell out incredibly fast as thousands rush to stockpile supplies.
Another hot item that is disappearing from store shelves? Hand sanitizer. Even online retailers like Amazon are having a hard time keeping brand names of the product in stock. Several third-party sellers are offering their own brands of hand sanitizers and sprays but products from Purell and Germ-X are increasingly harder to find if they're not already completely sold out.
So you might be thinking that you'll just make some yourself. It's basically just alcohol, right? Well, it's more complicated than that. We talked with several experts who have provided insights as to what precautionary measures should be taken, how you can be proactive in protecting yourself and others from contracting the virus, and the best way to make your very own hand sanitizer at home with ingredients you might already have.
What You Should Know First
The first thing to know is that the best way to keep your hands clean is to wash them with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have hand washing guidelines on their website in addition to best practices when using hand sanitizer. The CDC emphasizes that while “alcohol-based sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations,” they don’t get rid of every type of germ.
Additionally, if you plan on making your own hand sanitizer, remember that your ingredients must be measured precisely for the product to work. Otherwise, you can actually do more harm than good.
Daniel Parker, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine told CNN that he was concerned about DIY sanitizer because “it will be difficult to make sure that the concentrations are correct.” If your measurements aren’t spot-on, you could over-dry your hands and end up with an ineffective formula.
Washing your hands seems pretty basic—wet hands, apply soap, lather up, rinse. Still, there's actually protocol for proper hand washing techniques: 20 second minimum, in between all fingers, back of hands, and under fingernails. According to cosmetic chemist, Perry Romanowski, water temperature when washing your hands “does not impact the effectiveness of microbe removal.”
The second thing you should know is that hand sanitizer is typically recommended for use in lieu of hand washing in locations where traditional hand washing is near impossible—i.e.: places where water might be scarce. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) created a guide of DIY “handrub formulations” to help communities without the ability to implement proper hand washing techniques. Keep in mind, this WHO guide is for large batches of sanitizer designed for use by large communities, not individuals.
Romanowski tells Popular Mechanics that the “key component to hand sanitizers” is either ethanol (the most common ingredient in alcoholic drinks) or isopropanol (rubbing alcohol). Romanowski adds that these alcohols usually get thickened by some kind of acrylic polymer such as Carbomer (a group of polymers made from acrylic acid). Since the average Joe likely doesn’t have immediate access to Carbomer, Romanowski suggests using aloe vera gel as a substitute.
What You Need
⅔ cup 99% rubbing alcohol | ⅓ cup aloe vera gel
1 mixing bowl | 1 mixing utensil | A clean funnel | A thoroughly washed and dried bottle with a resealable lid or pump to store sanitizer
From here all you have to do is mix the ingredients, funnel them into the bottle you set aside, and use at your leisure. Remember, the sanitizer still contains ingredients that are harmful if ingested—make sure yours is in a resealable container, clearly labeled, and out of the reach of children.
Per Romanowski, the final formula should be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective. So, if you’re looking to fill a standard eight ounce bottle of Purell with a homemade formula, 4.8 ounces of the overall eight ounces would need to be alcohol with the remaining 3.2 ounces being aloe vera gel.
“Hand sanitizers do not kill all viruses,” he shares. “Soap and water removes them from your hands.” So, again, don’t use hand sanitizer to replace handwashing. Whenever possible, always choose to wash with soap for 20 seconds.
What About Booze as a Sanitizer?
In a pinch, you can use drinking alcohol to sanitize your hands. However, the alcohol has to be at the very least 180 proof. So no, Tito’s vodka won’t suffice because it’s 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), and alcohol potency needs to be at least 60 percent to be effective as a sanitizer.
If you have 180+ proof alcohol nearby, you could just splash some on your hands and it would suffice as hand sanitizer in a pinch. However, Romanowski tells us that “it won’t work as well since there would be a reduced exposure time.” Again, if you're able to wash your hands with soap and water, opt for that.
The reason you need a minimum for each is because the minimum is what it takes to break down the lipid envelope that surrounds and protects the virus. Christine L. Moe, professor of Safe Water and Sanitation and the Director of the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory University, shares that viruses, like the flu, “seem to be more susceptible to alcohol-based sanitizers.” But the alcohol has to be potent enough to disintegrate the lipid layer and kill the virus. Moe also emphasizes the critical importance of hand washing.
“Washing hands carefully… is always preferable to alcohol-based sanitizers for any virus. The physical action of rubbing, the surfactant action of the soap, and the running water help remove the viruses from hands,” says Moe.
If you want to take additional preventive measures against COVID-19, consider the following:
- Get a flu shot.
- Direct your coughs and sneezes into the crook of your elbow.
- Frequently wash your hands with soap and water.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Maintain some distance from people coughing and sneezing around you.
- Avoid using face masks if you are well—especially surgical masks since they do not provide complete protection from germ-containing particles.
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