As fear over the novel coronavirus escalates, it's getting harder to find even a simple bottle of hand sanitizer. On Amazon, many listings are sold out. CVS warns that customers may find empty store shelves.
As a result, recipes for DIY hand sanitizer are spreading online. Washing your hands is the best way to avoid transmission of disease—including COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. However, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, advises using hand sanitizer made with at least 60 percent alcohol (ethanol/ethyl alcohol) when soap and water aren't available.
Popular recipes circulating online include a combination of alcohol, essential oils, and aloe vera gel. However, you shouldn't assume this method is safe and effective, says Birnur Aral, PhD and the Health, Beauty and Environmental Sciences Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute.
For example, a popular recipe circulating online suggests using 2/3 cups of either 99 percent rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) or ethanol (ethyl alcohol or alcohol) as the main antimicrobial active ingredient, resulting in roughly 66 percent active content in the final product. However, there is a nuance in the FDA’s rule governing the hand sanitizer product category regarding the different actives recommended as being safe and effective, Aral says.
The rule states that the minimum recommended level for isopropyl alcohol is 70 percent in the final product as opposed to the minimum of 60 percent for ethyl alcohol. So if you use isopropyl alcohol at the recommended 2/3 cup level in the recipe, the active level would fall short of the recommended 70 percent, Aral notes. If ethanol is used instead, the recipe should theoretically meet the minimum of 60 percent required by the FDA rule.
Some recipes include essential oils, but the quantities are likely inconsequential in fighting viruses, Aral adds.
"These are added at such small amounts to the formula and their contributions to the overall antimicrobial efficacy of the proposed formula could be debated," she says. "This should all remind us that we are not all pharmacists and we should perhaps leave making of hand sanitizers, which are considered OTC drugs as per FDA, to licensed manufacturers."
Dr. John Whyte, MD, WebMD Chief Medical Officer, says that sloppy measuring or even bad math skills could lead to poor results.
"My biggest concern would be that people don't follow the directions precisely, thereby making their homemade version less effective, or possibly ineffective," he says.
And besides, hand washing is the most effective tool to protect against spreading viruses.
"I would only make my own sanitizer if there was no way I could buy it—there's a reason why we have good manufacturing," says Dr. Whyte.
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