Does Homemade Hand Sanitizer Work? Health Experts Weigh In
With hand sanitizer flying off shelves, people are turning to DIY mixtures.
As the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. continues to rise, the availability of hand sanitizer grows limited. In an effort to protect themselves, consumers have cleared store shelves and bought out Amazon’s stock of many essential disinfecting products. With resellers gouging prices and stores waiting for new shipments, there's a high demand for alternative solutions to Purell and other products like it. Recipes for homemade hand sanitizers are popping up all over the internet, even gaining coverage from well-known news sources, and small business marketplaces like Etsy feature dozens of results for handcrafted disinfecting gels. But will a concoction mixed by you or an Etsy seller work as well as the store-bought kind? We asked health and cleaning experts to weigh in on whether or not homemade hand sanitizers are actually effective, or even safe to use.
When should I use hand sanitizer?
Across the board, the experts who spoke with us agree that using good old soap and water—following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) recommendations for avoiding coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses—is still your best bet for staying healthy. “I recommend using hand sanitizer for emergency use. In an emergency situation, it's better than nothing," says Terry Wahls, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Iowa. This advice matches up with that of the CDC, which notes that an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be effective in killing viruses, though a thorough hand-washing is always preferred.
Is hand sanitizer harmful?
While store-bought hand sanitizers are more effective than homemade, they have their drawbacks. Christian Gonzalez, ND, a naturopathic doctor, warns that hand sanitizers can “enhance dermal penetration of BPA." Otherwise known as bisphenol-A, it's a chemical that interferes with the endocrine system, leading in some cases to negative effects on the brain and prostate gland. Gonzalez also advises consumers to avoid hand sanitizers that include triclosan, which may actually weaken your immune system and disrupt your hormone regulation. That rule shouldn't be too difficult to follow, as the Food & Drug Administration ruled in 2016 that soaps and hand sanitizers containing triclosan could no longer be marketed to consumers. (Products like cosmetics and toothpastes still utilize triclosan, so read your labels carefully.)
Wahls cautions that the hand sanitizer you buy at the drug store may "use compounds that can interfere with your gut microbiome and cause an imbalance." Your gut microbiome is made up of the microorganisms—mainly bacteria—that live in your intestinal tract. While researchers are still investigating how exactly those microorganisms impact your health, there is evidence that they're linked to several serious medical conditions and diseases, including cancer, per Springer Nature. "When you use a hand sanitizer, the compounds in the hand sanitizer get absorbed by your skin into your bloodstream, and then the compounds find their way into your gut microbiome, disrupting it altogether," says Wahls.
Hand sanitizer also doesn't know the difference between "good" and "bad" bacteria. Wiping out the good kind can lead to a weaker immune system and/or greater antibiotic resistance, according to Popular Science.
Do handmade hand sanitizers work?
It seems to depend on who you ask. Cleaning expert and national spokesperson for the American Cleaning Institute, Brian Sansoni, says that the idea that homemade sanitizers can effectively protect against illness is "highly suspect." He continues, "The producers who make these products follow formulas. If you’re at home, nothing guarantees that you’ll get the product formulation just right." Dermatologist Peterson Pierre, MD agrees, saying, “If you have a choice, you are better off buying sanitizer from a store because they’ve been made in large volumes, they’re reliable companies, they’ve been doing this for a long time, they have the right formula, and it’s consistent.”
Sansoni also points out the danger of keeping homemade sanitizer in unlabeled bottles, as a child could possibly ingest it or get it into their eyes.
What about natural alternatives to hand sanitizer?
“In the past five to ten years, we’ve seen a lot more people lean towards DIY stuff," says Pierre of hand sanitizing products. "Folks who believe in natural alternatives, essential oils, and things like that." While he stipulates that preferring natural ingredients is "not necessarily a bad thing," when it comes to disinfecting products, swapping alcohol for essential oils means sacrificing effectiveness. That means that many of the "all-natural" hand sanitizers you see on Etsy will not protect you from illnesses like the coronavirus like a bottle of Purell will.
What's in DIY hand sanitizer?
Dr. Maria Vila, DO, medical advisor for eMediHealth says, "The majority of the homemade sanitizers I have seen involve mixing rubbing alcohol with aloe vera gel so that your final mixture is 60 percent alcohol." If "made correctly," they can be effective, she notes. However, if the proportions are off, the mixture will basically be useless.
"The aloe vera gel is in there to limit the drying of the skin," says emergency nurse James Cobb, RN, MSN. But he warns that "some formulations of aloe vera gel may actually hinder the evaporation of the alcohol," which is necessary for killing germs.
Cobb tells us that he's seen even people blend isopropyl alcohol with hair gel, Jell-O, olive oil, and other items to make their own hand sanitizer. “You can potentially mix hundreds of substances with alcohol, but unless you test them to see how they actually act against bacteria and viruses, you're only guessing," he says. "That's not science." No homemade or small-batch mixture has undergone the testing of a store-brought product, which is another reason why they're preferred.
One DIY potion that surely won't work involves the kind of alcohol you drink. Sansoni urges people not to follow the viral trend of making hand sanitizer out of vodka. Most brands are only 40% alcohol, not to mention the potential danger of spraying vodka on or around children. You may think that this is common sense, but Tito's Vodka recently released a statement on Twitter citing the CDC to disavow the practice.
What's the best recipe?
If you are in a pinch and do attempt to mix your own hand sanitizer, Cobb prefers a higher concentration of alcohol than the CDC's minimum recommendation of 60 percent. “70 percent isopropyl alcohol seems to be something of a sweet spot when it comes to preferred concentrations," he advises. "Very high concentrations of alcohol may evaporate too quickly to be as effective. Too low of a concentration (like what's found in rubbing alcohol), and it's not strong enough to destroy the walls of the bacteria and viruses."
Pierre suggests adding glycerol (instead of aloe vera) to the isopropyl alcohol base to protect skin and help with lubrication. If you do that, be sure to adjust the amount of isopropyl alcohol in the mixture to ensure the percentage stays between 60 and 70 percent. It's also important to add a touch of hydrogen peroxide to rid the bottle you're using (which probably had a past life) of any potential contaminants. Dr. Vila stresses the use of clean utensils or tools, as grime or food bits would also contaminate the blend.
The bottom line is that no homemade hand sanitizer will ever be as trustworthy as the kind you get at the drug store, but following these guidelines could result in a decently effective last resort. If you absolutely can't find the real stuff and decide to go this route, be sure to get a recipe from a trustworthy source, use clean containers and utensils, and store it away from children.