Homemade hand sanitizer is probably not the best option for getting rid of germs and here’s why.
These days, having hand sanitizer “on-hand” is important. When you’re out and about and you don’t have access to a sink to wash your hands, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol can be used to kill many, but not all, germs that cause illness, including cold, flu, and even coronavirus (COVID-19).
The new coronavirus outbreak and the shortages of hand sanitizers in stores have forced people to make their own hand sanitizer at home with interesting ingredients. These range from vodka to rubbing alcohol. But is hand sanitizer made at home a good idea?
The CDC hasn’t issued specific guidance on DIY hand sanitizer. So, here are the answers to many health experts who don’t always share the same view. Read on and find out why you should, or shouldn’t, make your own hand sanitizer.
Soap and water is always better
The CDC explains that it’s always better to wash your hands with soap and water than to use hand sanitizer. So if you’re home and you have access to a sink, soap, and water, that should be your first measure against germs including the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
According to the CDC, hand sanitizer doesn’t work if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. “Handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds is more effective as the ‘friction’ removes more particles,” says Victoria Maizes, MD, executive director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine and professor of clinical medicine, family medicine, and public health at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Homemade hand sanitizer is questionable
You should only use hand sanitizer when you’re out of your house and you don’t have access to soap and water.
“Hand washing is best, but we need to use what we can,” says Suzanne Willard, PhD, an advanced practice nurse and associate dean of global health and clinical professor at Rutgers University School of Nursing in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It is probably better than nothing.”
However, Brian Sansoni, a spokesperson for the American Cleaning Institute, takes a different view. “We strongly recommend against trying to make your own hand sanitizer at home,” he says. “Trying to play ‘Mr. Wizard’ at home won’t guarantee that you’ll get the product formulation mix just right.”
What’s the secret to hand sanitizer?
Here’s the issue: You’ve got to make sure your formula has the right proportion of ingredients. “There are many recipes found on the Internet that are essentially the same: Something that cleans such as alcohol, something that makes it less liquid such as aloe vera gel or glycerol, and essential oils to make it smell good,” says Willard. “If you can get the supplies, you can try different recipes to come up with one you like best.”
“Hand sanitizer is a preparation of 60 to 70 ethanol [alcohol] combined with moisturizers,” says Dr. Maizes. “Home recipes often recommend aloe vera gel; if that is hard to find, use glycerol, a common ingredient found in makeup and moisturizers, instead.”
Approved hand sanitizer recipes
There’s a recipe circulating from the World Health Organization (WHO) that was created for the areas that do not have access to clean water. However, it’s a complex recipe in huge quantities, nearly three gallons. Moreover, trying to reduce the proportions could lead to math mistakes.
Instead, Dr. Maizes recommends a mixture developed at the Michael Lin Lab at Stanford University. “Mix two parts 95 percent non-denatured ethanol alcohol with one part 90 to 100 percent glycerol,” she says. “Use non-denatured ethanol, which lacks toxic additives—that is, avoid bottles with the health hazard poison logo.” In addition, she warns, “do not use dehydrated, absolute, anhydrous, 100 percent, or 200-proof ethanol, as that has benzene from the purification process.”
It sounds complicated and it is definitely not easy to do. Basically, you need to use alcohol with some water in it, which is what’s readily available to the public anyway. Your choices are likely rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) or ethyl alcohol, also called ethanol. It’s important to have a high enough content of alcohol in your recipe, 60 percent after you mix it with everything else, to kill the germs: A 2-to-1 ratio.
Skip the vodka
You might have stocked up on alcohol to be prepared for quarantine, but don’t count on vodka to sanitize your hands. Most vodka contains only 40 percent alcohol (80 proof), so it won’t be strong enough to effectively kill the germs. Vodka maker Tito’s confirmed their products can’t be used to make hand sanitizer: “Per the CDC, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40 percent alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC,” the company wrote on Twitter.
The “good” side of DIY hand sanitizer
One positive aspect about making your own DIY hand sanitizer is that you know what’s in it because we can’t say the same thing about the hand sanitizer that can be found online or in stores. According to the River Vale Police Department in New Jersey, one boy suffered chemical burns due to hand sanitizer made or doctored by a store owner and then sold.
If you’re careful, it could work
However, if it is made properly, a homemade hand sanitizer could kill coronavirus and it could also kill other bacteria and viruses that make you sick. The CDC says that hand sanitizer (only the ones which contain at least 60 percent alcohol) can be used against to kill the coronavirus, only if soap and water aren’t available.
Research such as a 2017 study in The Journal of Infectious Diseases found that hand sanitizer is effective against “enveloped” viruses like coronaviruses, plus the usual cold and flu. The researchers note that alcohol destroys the bugs by attacking this outer coat. However, hand sanitizer also must be applied properly. You need to cover both sides of the hands and completely rub it in without wiping it off.
Think of the children
A big risk for homemade hand sanitizer is ” if there are young children in the home,” Sansoni says. “You don’t want them to get a hold of that mixture and have them attempt to taste it or play with it.”
It’s true that this also applies to store-bought hand sanitizer, but when it comes to the homemade one, you have even more uncertainty about the strength of the recipe. Another concern when it comes to children is that the container may not be properly labeled, increasing the risk of someone drinking it. In addition, Poison Control notes that even inhaling rubbing alcohol can be toxic for kids.
Therefore, homemade hand sanitizer can harm the skin. There’s a good reason hand sanitizer is one of the things that dermatologists refuse to use on their hands. Homemade hand sanitizer could only increase the risk of getting an infection. How? “Too much alcohol will dry out the skin,” Willard says.
The difference between store-bought products and the homemade ones, is that the ones you can buy at a store are tested and they contain the proper emollients to help moisturize and soften skin, adds Sansoni.
If you don’t respect the ingredient measurement and your DIY recipe is too strong, it could damage your skin, making it cracked or red and increasing your risk that germs can get through, causing an infection, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The New Jersey Department of Health also warns that rubbing alcohol may cause burns.
Sheltering in place? You don’t need hand sanitizer
If you’re at home and you have access to a sink, soap, and water, you won’t need a hand sanitizer at all. “Washing with soap and water is the most important action you can take to help prevent the spread of illness and disease,” Sansoni says. “Any kind of soap fits the bill, so stick with washing your hands with soap and water.”
All you need is paying attention to the way you wash your hands. You should properly wash them even after blowing your nose or sneezing, before and after eating, and before and after caring for someone else. Even if you’re not at home, such as if you’re at your workplace, the CDC again recommends hand washing as often as you can.
On-the-go hand sanitizer for travel
It is a good idea to making your own hand sanitizer only if you must leave the house and don’t have a store-bought version. “Having a small bottle with you wherever you go is helpful,” Willard says.
Sansoni also suggests using hand cleansing wipes if you have them. But, you should also follow additional strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases. “We should be thinking about where our hands are going—away from the face and mouth—and minimal touching of things that other people are also using,” she says.
It is important to avoid public places with the most germs. Then, as soon as you get home, or at the workplace, wash your hands.