Photo by Elizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, one of the biggest public health recommendations to prevent further spread is thorough, routine hand washing. When that’s not possible, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer is another way to reduce the transmission of potentially harmful germs. But people are stocking up and buying out all sorts of disinfecting products, so you might be surprised to find the supply of hand sanitizer running short where you live.
Some people are taking sanitizing matters into their own hands (pun intended) and creating their own hand sanitizers at home with creative-but-ineffective ingredients like vodka and essential oils.
There are so many vodka-based hand sanitizer recipes circulating that Tito’s Vodka spoke out on Twitter to inform the public that their product doesn’t contain enough alcohol to effectively stave off germs. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60 percent alcohol to actually reduce your chances of getting sick and prevent spreading germs to other people. And regarding the COVID-19 virus specifically, the CDC says that “alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol … should be effective.”
The problem is: It’s difficult to get your hands on un-diluted alcohol. Most vodka contains about 40 percent ethanol (ethyl) alcohol (vodka that is “80 proof” is 40 percent alcohol by volume). Even rubbing alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are pre-diluted with water before they’re bottled and put on the shelf. The specific concentration is always indicated clearly on the label, usually 70 percent or 90-91 percent alcohol.
Why You Shouldn’t Use DIY Hand Sanitizer, According to a Hygiene Expert
Vodka or not, Dr. Elizabeth Scott, professor of microbiology at Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons University in Boston, says it’s not the best idea to rely on homemade hand sanitizers. The main reason? There’s no way to guarantee your DIY project will be effective against pathogens that could harm you—if literal vodka doesn’t contain enough alcohol to meet CDC guidelines, then essential oils and other natural products likely won’t, either.
“When you buy commercial hand sanitizers, they are manufactured to have a specific concentration of alcohol,” Scott says. “At home, I have no idea how you would even begin to figure that out.”
Aside from simply not working, DIY hand sanitizers could also potentially damage your skin. Scott says most commercial sanitizing products contain skin-softening ingredients in the mix—so if you start putting alcohol or other potentially harsh ingredients on your hands, you’ll likely dry them out or even damage the skin.
What To Do If You Can’t Find Hand Sanitizer
Your best bet if hand sanitizer runs out—and honestly, in general—is good, old-fashioned soap and water. Sanitizer should never replace hand-washing as a hygiene measure. “Hand washing is always the first choice, and I think we need to remind people about that,” Scott says. “Hand sanitizers should be considered as a back-up between hand washing.”
As a reminder, how you wash or sanitize your hands is just as important as how often you do those things. The CDC recommends scrubbing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds when you wash them, and the same time-frame recommendation applies when you use sanitizer: Keep rubbing your hands together until they feel completely dry, which usually takes about 20 seconds.
To learn more about when you should wash your hands and when (store-bought, evidence-based) sanitizer is a safe option check out this CDC fact sheet.
Photo by Joe Lingeman
If You Absolutely Have to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer
If you understand the risks and are still committed to making your own hand sanitizer at home, you need to be vigilant about ensuring your solution has enough alcohol in it. Yes, it’s going to require a calculator, and if you can’t trust your own math, you probably shouldn’t trust your own hand sanitizer.
If you have 70 percent alcohol at home, based on the CDC’s recommendations for disinfecting for the coronavirus specifically, it shouldn’t be diluted any further. You can use it directly to disinfect your hands, but it can be drying and potentially harmful for your skin (that’s why you usually wear gloves when you’re cleaning). You can apply moisturizer to your hands after the alcohol has air-dried.
If you have 90 or 91 percent alcohol at home, you’re able to safely dilute it slightly with something like aloe vera gel, but you need to take care that your final solution is still within the safe range, above 70 percent alcohol by volume. A safe ratio is about 4 parts of 90-91 percent alcohol to 1 part (total) of any other dilution (for example, 1 cup of 90 percent alcohol mixed with ¼ cup of aloe). Any recipe asking you to dilute further, such as mixing ⅔ cup of (already-diluted) alcohol and ⅓ cup of aloe, won’t meet the CDC’s criteria for disinfection.
The World Health Organization has a guide to making hand sanitizer with raw ingredients, intended for use by qualified pharmacists working in populations that don’t have access to commercial sanitizing products, but it requires you begin with high-concentration alcohols (96 percent ethanol or 99.8 percent isopropyl alcohol) plus ingredients like glycerol that might not be any easier to come by than hand sanitizer where you are.
Ashley Abramson is a mom/writer hybrid living in the Twin Cities. She most frequently writes on health, motherhood, and culture and the places where they intersect.