DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipes Have Taken Over the Internet—But Are They Even Safe?

According to experts, the homemade stuff isn't your best option.

Unless you've cut yourself off from any and all coronavirus news coverage lately (in which case, fair), you're well aware of the hand sanitizer shortage that's gripping the US right now. Drugstores and bigger chains like Walmart and Target have empty shelves where hand sanitizers were once stocked, and even online retailers' prices of the products are inflated (primarily due to individual sellers).

The truth is, that shortage isn't entirely unwarranted: While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that the absolute best way to protect yourself is to frequently wash your hands—for at least 20 seconds; and before eating, after using the bathroom, and after sneezing or coughing—a second-best option is to use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, especially when you're not near soap and running water.

But because there's basically a finite supply of hand sanitizer at any given moment, it can (and will) run out—which is why many news outlets have begun publishing DIY hand sanitizer recipes. Two main formulas are currently circulating: One, which is "recommended" by the World Health Organization (WHO); the other, a recipe apparently suggested by the Vitamin Shoppe.

It's a comforting idea, of course: When stores run of out hand sanitizer, you can just make your own—but is homemade hand sanitizer really as useful as store-bought, or could it even be potentially harmful?

Unfortunately for the specific isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera industries—two products that are recommended for DIY hand sanitizer, and are also sold out in many places—making your own hand sanitizer isn't medically recommended. "We don't think it's a good idea to make your own for a number of reasons," Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.

First and foremost, a proper hand sanitizer recipe is all about the proportions—and it’s hard to for the average consumer to get those exactly right. Take that "WHO-recommended recipe," for example, which is less of a personal-use recipe and is actually intended for "local production" in "countries and health-care facilities." The ingredients list calls for exact measurements of three main ingredients—isopropyl alcohol, 99.8% (7,515 milliliters); hydrogen peroxide, 3% (417 milliliters); glycerol, 98% (145 milliliters); and sterile distilled or boiled cold water—and nine different supplies needed to make the hand sanitizer. That, to be totally honest, leaves a lot of room for human error.

Even if that recipe was made exactly as instructed, it would yield you 10 liters of hand sanitizer, or just over 2.6 gallons. And while some outlets tweaked those WHO-recommended amounts to yield smaller batches, that also makes human error a very real possibility. The same, of course, goes for the other recipe, which uses a mixture of aloe vera gel, essential oils, and 91% isopropyl alcohol. Essentially, according to Dr. Vyas, "the proportions may be off in your little homemade laboratory," rendering your product ineffective or harmful to your skin.

Another big red flag? The entire point of hand-sanitizer is sanitation, which means the tools you're working with must also be sanitized. "If you don't use correctly sanitized tools, the final product could be contaminated," Ted Lain, MD, board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer and Sanova Dermatology tells Health. In addition to using correct and clean products, the WHO's recommended hand sanitizer "recipe" also calls for production facilities to be air conditioned and free of any flames (ethanol and isopropyl alcohol are extremely flammable).

Lastly, according Rick Sachleben, a former chemist and member of the American Chemical Society, all commercially-sold hand sanitizer products have been tested for their efficacy. "Anything you buy has been through that [testing] process," he says, pointing out that home concoctions (and news outlet-recommended recipes) have not, meaning their level of effectiveness is unknown.

We know—this is all kind of a downer, especially if you went out and stocked up on isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera after learning your local store was out of the real stuff. But even if you don't have hand sanitizer at your disposal, Dr. Vyas says it's not the end of the world. "Hand sanitizer is secondary to handwashing. That should be the standard of care," she says. And, because (luckily), there's no shortage of water and hand soap, you're still able to the best you can to protect yourself against coronavirus—even if you're not brewing your own endless supply of hand sanitizer at home.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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