Hand sanitiser is sold out everywhere. That’s just a fact of life right now. But there are plenty of DIY recipes out there so you can make your own, so I set out to test them. And then I ran into problems.
There’s no guarantee DIY recipes will actually work
The instructions from the World Health Organisation are clear: hand sanitizers that are at least 60% alcohol are an acceptable way to disinfect your hands if you don’t have access to soap and water. So you just have to mix alcohol with something else in a 60:40 ratio, right? (Most recipes call for that other ingredient to be aloe vera gel.)
Unfortunately there are some problems. First, experts note that it’s easy to screw up the recipe. You might measure it wrong, or use the wrong concentration of alcohol, for example, or maybe you’re following a recipe that looks good online but doesn’t actually result in the right concentration of alcohol.
Second, rubbing alcohol is really harsh on skin. Your DIY sanitiser will not be as gooey and moisturising as a fresh bottle of Purell, because there’s a reason companies like Purell spend time and money on developing the right formula for each product. As one pharmacist noted on twitter, this isn’t easy.
I'm a professional compounding pharmacist, and I can make hand sanitizer gel, having learned this art in the 2009 pandemic, and it is VERY DIFFICULT. Getting alcohol to gel is so pissy, but using straight-up liquid versions destroys your skin. Just. Use. Soap.
— Brooke (@hsifyppah) March 4, 2020
There is an official, World Health Organisation-endorsed recipe for hand sanitiser, meant to be made by pharmacists in countries where medical supplies are hard to find or have run short. It’s very different from most recipes you’ll find online, in a few respects:
It calls for hydrogen peroxide to kill spores that may be present in ingredients or on equipment before you start
It advises against adding perfumes or dyes unless you’re sure they are unlikely to cause irritation or allergy (many homemade recipes call for essential oils, but essential oils aren’t always safe for skin.)
It provides instructions for measuring the alcohol content after you’re done to be sure it’s mixed properly and that too much alcohol did not evaporate during the process
It instructs you to place the bottles in “quarantine” for 72 hours so that the newly-made gel can kill any bacterial spores that may have made their way in.
If you’re prepared to do all of the above, and follow directions closely, I suppose you could make your own hand sanitiser. But…why?
DIY hand sanitiser just doesn’t make sense
I figured I’d give the recipe a try, anyway. I headed to Target intending to buy aloe gel, alcohol, and maybe also some glycerol to try the WHO’s version too.
I was scanning the shelves looking for aloe gel when, I kid you not, I overheard two employees stocking shelves nearby talking about this very topic. It went something like this:
“…[somebody] said you can make your own with aloe vera gel and vodka! I said, I’ll drink the vodka!”
“Now, why can’t you use [rubbing] alcohol?”
“You can! But we’re out of that too.”
Welp, so much for that. Turns out Target was out of alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide, in addition to being clean out of hand sanitiser.
(By the way, don’t use vodka. Not only is it more expensive than rubbing alcohol, it’s half the strength and won’t work in the DIY hand sanitiser recipes. That lady had the right idea: vodka is for drinking.)
So here’s a question for you, if you’re thinking about making your own hand sanitiser. Why not just…wash your hands? Sure, sanitiser is a handy stopgap when you aren’t near a sink, but is a sketchy DIY version really any better? It may not actually work, and it’s probably going to dry your hands out pretty bad.
Except in very specific circumstances (you’re in the wilderness, but surrounded by crowds of people, but you also do not have visibly dirty hands) you can probably just make another trip to the bathroom to wash your hands.
The good news: Every store I checked had hand sanitiser cleared from the shelves, but hand soap was always plentifully stocked.