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Mixing Your Own Hand Sanitizer?

Mixing Your Own Hand Sanitizer?

Recipes circulating on social media say it’s simple. But the end result is not like the real thing, and it may not be effective at killing germs.

Tara Parker-Pope

By Tara Parker-Pope

  • June 22, 2020

Until a few months ago, most of us didn’t give hand sanitizer much thought. Now it’s sold out around the world, prompting a variety of do-it-yourself recipes that are designed to be mixed up in a home kitchen.

But medical experts discourage D.I.Y. sanitizer for a variety of reasons. For starters, it lacks quality control — a wrong measurement or ingredient and you may end up with less alcohol than needed to kill germs, or a mixture that is contaminated.

“We don’t have sterile production facilities in our houses,” said Dr. Ted Lain, a dermatologist and chief medical officer for Sanova Dermatology, a group of 15 medical practices in Texas and Louisiana. “I’m concerned the percentage of alcohol is going to be incorrect. I’m concerned that the tools that are going to be used for it are not sterile and could be introducing bacteria, fungi and viruses into the hand sanitizer. And you hear about essential oils and other things being added that can cause contact sensitization,” or allergic reactions.

And then there’s the larger concern that sanitizer — whether it’s store bought or home made — is not as effective at killing germs as just washing your hands with soap and water.

“I’d rather people use liquid soap and water, and then moisturize, which I know is going to be effective, than use a half-baked recipe of alcohol sanitizer that I hope is effective,” said Dr. Lain.

If you do decide to make your own sanitizer, prepare to be disappointed. The main ingredients — rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel — now are nearly as hard to find as actual sanitizer. And after mixing it up, the end result doesn’t look or feel like the real thing.Coronavirus Briefing: An informed guide to the global outbreak, with the latest developments and expert advice.

The most popular recipe circulating on social media calls for two parts of 91 percent rubbing alcohol and one part aloe vera gel. If you measure it precisely, that should give you a final brew of 60.6 percent alcohol — just a fraction above the 60 percent alcohol content recommended by public health officials. If you goof and get a bottle of only 70 percent isopropyl alcohol — the final homemade sanitizer will contain less than 47 percent alcohol, not enough to effectively kill most germs.

I tried making homemade sanitizer a few times myself. Mostly I just made a mess. After mixing alcohol and aloe vera gel in a bowl, the mix created weird globules, and the gel began to separate and sink to the bottom. After mixing a few more times, the final product was runny and more like straight alcohol than the easy-to-apply gel I was hoping for. (And after a few hours it began to separate again.)

Other people who have made their own sanitizer report having had better results. Jennifer Ippoliti of Jersey City, N.J., couldn’t find bottled aloe gel so she bought fresh aloe plant leaves from the grocery store. She extracted the gel and puréed it in the blender. After adding the alcohol, she got the same white globules I experienced. She put it back in the blender to smooth it out.

Ms. Ippoliti noted that the final result was runny and not at all like store-bought sanitizer. “But if I am quick, I can get my hands covered with it without losing too much in drips,” she said. She put a batch in a spray bottle for her husband to use at work, but a week later, the homemade sanitizer had gummed up the sprayer, so she switched to a flip-top bottle.

Ms. Ippoliti said she took the time to make D.I.Y. sanitizer because her husband is still leaving the house to go to work during the pandemic. “He’s out there every day slathering his hands with homemade sanitizer because that’s the best we can do right now,” she said.

Some sanitizer recipes on social media suggest using vodka rather than rubbing alcohol, but the alcohol content in vodka is typically too low — around 40 percent — to make an effective sanitizer. And while you can still find industrial grade 99 percent alcohol (often used to clean electronics), experts say it’s not intended for human use and would be too harsh on skin.

The website LiveScience.com, had better luck making sanitizer by mixing alcohol and glycerin, a viscous liquid used as a skin moisturizer. “One thing you should keep in mind, this is probably not going to feel like the commercially-produced hand sanitizers that you’re used to,” said writer Mindy Weisberger.

Gel hand sanitizer was something of a technological breakthrough when it was invented in the late 1980s. It isn’t made just by mixing a few ingredients in a bowl. It uses a combination of alcohol, emollients and thickeners to create a gel that contains at least 60 percent alcohol and spreads easily across our hands before it evaporates.

“Hand sanitizer is regulated by the F.D.A. as an over-the-counter drug, and there are robust regulations around its manufacture,” according to a statement from GoJo Industries, maker of Purell, which declined to comment outside the statement. “We caution against making your own hand sanitizer, due to concerns with the safety and efficacy of the final product.”

To ease shortages of hand sanitizer for hospitals and essential workers, some alcoholic beverage companies are switching their alcohol production to make sanitizer. Even those companies aren’t trying to replicate gel sanitizer. Instead they are making a spray version based on World Health Organization guidelines. It includes either a 96 percent ethanol or a 99.8 percent isopropyl, plus a 3 percent concentration of hydrogen peroxide to kill any contaminating bacteria spores, plus glycerol (another name for glycerin), as well as distilled water.

Stafford Sheehan, a chemist who invented a method for making high-end vodka using carbon dioxide emissions, said he’s not surprised that my attempt to make a gel-based sanitizer didn’t go well. “It’s just figuring out the right way to mix two things,” he said. “There are a lot of little things that people who don’t deal with this every day don’t think about.”

Dr. Sheehan and his business partner Gregory Constantine, who founded the company Air Co., have put vodka-making on hold during the coronavirus crisis and are using the technology to create free spray hand sanitizer for workers on the front lines of the coronavirus epidemic. The company has provided spray sanitizer to hospitals and police officers and is hoping to supply restaurant delivery drivers as well. “They are out on the front lines too,” said Mr. Constantine.