Is DIY hand sanitizer safe? Experts discuss

With Americans growing increasingly worried about the coronavirus, many have been exploring options to ward off germs. As a result, hand sanitizers have been fast disappearing from store shelves.

Those empty shelves have prompted some to devise their own homemade sanitizer mixtures. In fact, one of the top search topics lately has been for ingredients to create these DIY hand cleansers.

But is that really a good idea? To find out, TODAY reached out to some experts on hand cleansing.

There are times when it makes sense to create your own hand sanitizer, said Elaine Larson, a professor at the Columbia University's School of Nursing and Mailman School of Public Health in New York.

“When I was in Africa, we taught hospital pharmacies to make sanitizer because the commercial types were too expensive,” Larson said. “But I don’t see a great need for (DIY) hand sanitizer now.”

That’s because there are other options for keeping hands clean, mainly by washing them, Larson said.

In fact, some believe hand washing is a more effective means of removing germs.

“Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can reduce the number of microbes on hands, but they do not eliminate all types of germs,” said Aline Holmes, a clinical associate professor at the Rutgers School of Nursing in New Jersey.

“Hand sanitizers are an adjunct to hand washing since actually washing your hands gets off the dirt, gunk, droplets, etc., where microbes are living,” Holmes said in an email. “Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds — we suggest singing a song like ‘Happy birthday’ twice — on a regular basis and using hand sanitizers when soap and water are not available.”

When you can’t wash your hands, hand sanitizers, whether commercial or homemade, make sense if used in moderation, Larson said.

Health & Wellness

The best antimicrobial to use in a homemade hand sanitizer is alcohol, Larson said, adding that other products, such as bleach can be too hard on the skin. Even with alcohol, there’s a risk of skin damage if it’s used too often, Larson said. And damaged skin can be a place for microbes to grow and flourish, she added.

“You want to keep your hands free of the virus, but you don’t want to be rubbing alcohol on them multiple times a day,” Larson said. “Also, these products can kill off the germs that live on our skin as part of the natural flora. They are somewhat protective.”

Health & Wellness

Protecting the skin from the damaging effects of antimicrobials is why sanitizers often contain substances like aloe vera.

“Homemade sanitizers usually include 2/3 alcohol and 1/3 aloe vera gel to protect the skin and keep hands from drying out,” Holmes said.

If you feel strongly about making your own hand sanitizer, make sure you have the appropriate measuring tools and a safe container to keep the mixture in.

And if you're stuck without soap or sanitizer, just plain water can sometimes do the trick. Soap can help loosen grime that won’t come off with just water, but you can also use water followed by paper towels which mechanically remove some germs, Larson said.

“In Africa, people sometimes rub their hands with sand because the sand mechanically removes organisms,” Larson said. “When there isn’t much water some use palm fronds. Ultimately, it’s a balance between keeping the skin healthy and removing the virus.”