- The FDA has advised against the use of some hand sanitizers that contain methanol.
- Methanol can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested, the FDA says.
- To combat the coronavirus, Popular Mechanics asked experts to reveal exactly how to make your own DIY hand sanitizer that's completely safe.
Widespread panic at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic caused several hot-ticket quarantine items—water, toilet paper, non-perishable foods, and cleaning supplies—to fly off the shelves. Before long, the same was true for hand sanitizers, making the antiseptics impossible to find at a reasonable price (or find altogether). So several businesses, like distilleries, started making their own hand sanitizers to meet demand, and store shelves began restocking the product.
But there was a problem with that: Some of those new hand sanitizers contain methanol, which, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested.”
In June, the FDA advised against the use of hand sanitizers produced by Eskbiochem. The FDA tested some of the manufacturer's hand sanitizers and found that one of them (Lavar Gel) contained “81 percent ... methanol and no ethyl alcohol.” Since then, the FDA has released several more advisories and a searchable list where you can see which hand sanitizers contain methanol and are unsafe for use.
“Consumers who have been exposed to hand sanitizer containing methanol should seek immediate treatment, which is critical for potential reversal of toxic effects of methanol poisoning. Substantial methanol exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system or death. Although all persons using these products on their hands are at risk, young children who accidentally ingest these products and adolescents and adults who drink these products as an alcohol (ethanol) substitute, are most at risk for methanol poisoning.” —FDA, June 19, 2020
The good news: If you’d rather not risk purchasing tainted sanitizer, you can make your own. Popular Mechanics talked with several experts who have provided insights into what precautionary measures should be taken, how you can be proactive in protecting yourself and others from contracting the virus, and the best way to make your very own hand sanitizer at home with ingredients you might already have.
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What You Should Know First
The first thing to know is that the best way to keep your hands clean is to wash them with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have hand washing guidelines on their website in addition to best practices when using hand sanitizer. The CDC emphasizes that while “alcohol-based sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations,” they don’t get rid of every type of germ.
Additionally, if you plan on making your own hand sanitizer, remember that your ingredients must be measured precisely for the product to work. Otherwise, you can actually do more harm than good.
Carl Fichtenbaum, an infectious disease specialist and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati, tells Popular Mechanics that when it comes to DIY hand sanitizer, “It’s not a bad idea.” He also emphasizes the importance of ingredient measurement for effectiveness.
“If you can make a sanitizer with the appropriate content of isopropyl alcohol or ethanol—60 percent or more—it is likely to work well,” says Fichtenbaum.
Washing your hands seems pretty basic—wet hands, apply soap, lather up, rinse. Still, there’s actually protocol for proper hand washing techniques: 20 second minimum, in between all fingers, back of hands, and under fingernails. According to cosmetic chemist, Perry Romanowski, water temperature when washing your hands “does not impact the effectiveness of microbe removal.”
The second thing you should know is that hand sanitizer is typically recommended for use in lieu of hand washing in locations where traditional hand washing is near impossible—i.e.: places where water might be scarce. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) created a guide of DIY “handrub formulations” to help communities without the ability to implement proper hand washing techniques. Keep in mind, this WHO guide is for large batches of sanitizer designed for use by large communities, not individuals.
Romanowski tells Popular Mechanics that the “key component to hand sanitizers” is either ethanol (the most common ingredient in alcoholic drinks) or isopropanol (rubbing alcohol). Romanowski adds that these alcohols usually get thickened by some kind of acrylic polymer such as Carbomer (a group of polymers made from acrylic acid). Since the average Joe likely doesn’t have immediate access to Carbomer, Romanowski suggests using aloe vera gel as a substitute.
What You Need
⅔ cup 99% isopropyl alcohol, ⅓ cup aloe vera gel
1 mixing bowl, 1 mixing utensil, a clean funnel, and a thoroughly washed and dried bottle with a resealable lid or pump to store sanitizer
From here all you have to do is mix the ingredients, funnel them into the bottle you set aside, and use at your leisure. Remember, the sanitizer still contains ingredients that are harmful if ingested—make sure yours is in a resealable container, clearly labeled, and out of the reach of children.
Per Romanowski, the final formula should be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective. So, if you’re looking to fill a standard eight ounce bottle of Purell with a homemade formula, 4.8 ounces of the overall eight ounces would need to be alcohol with the remaining 3.2 ounces being aloe vera gel.
“Hand sanitizers do not kill all viruses,” he shares. “Soap and water removes them from your hands.” So, again, don’t use hand sanitizer to replace handwashing. Whenever possible, always choose to wash with soap for 20 seconds.
What About Booze as a Sanitizer?
In a pinch, you can use ethanol—drinking alcohol—to make DIY sanitizer. However, the alcohol has to be at the very least 180 proof since you’ll eventually mix it with aloe, decreasing the ethanol’s potency. So no, Tito’s vodka won’t suffice because it’s 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), and the final formula calls for alcohol potency of at least 60 percent to be effective.
According to Fichtenbaum, ethanol has “been used since the late 1800s. Most studies on the use of alcohol-based sanitizers have been done using combinations of isopropanol, n-propanol or ethanol. There is ample evidence that ethanol does kill many viruses including SARS and MERS.” Still, remember that a simple splash of ethanol isn't enough—you still have to go through the motions of entirely covering your hands and getting beneath fingernails and in between fingers to effectively kill any lingering germs.
What if you’re really in a bind and don’t have rubbing alcohol or aloe but you do have ethanol? Using only 120 proof (60 percent alcohol) liquor—and most liquors higher in proof—might work, but it’s generally not recommended.
Why? According to Romanowski, it “won’t work as well since there would be a reduced exposure time,” unlike washing with soap and water which should always be your first choice when possible.
In short, if you’re making a DIY sanitizer formula, go with two parts 99 percent isopropyl alcohol (or 180 proof ethanol) and one part aloe. Per the experts, using ethanol by itself generally isn’t recommended due to shorter exposure time.
You might be wondering, “why so much specificity?” The reason you need to adhere to minimums for each ingredient is because the absolute minimum is what it takes to begin breaking down the lipid envelope that surrounds and protects the virus.
Christine L. Moe, professor of Safe Water and Sanitation and the Director of the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory University, shares that viruses, like the flu, “seem to be more susceptible to alcohol-based sanitizers.” But the alcohol has to be potent enough to disintegrate the lipid layer and kill the virus. Moe also emphasizes the critical importance of hand washing.
“Washing hands carefully… is always preferable to alcohol-based sanitizers for any virus. The physical action of rubbing, the surfactant action of the soap, and the running water help remove the viruses from hands,” says Moe.
In order to reduce your chance of contracting COVID-19, Fichtenbaum says to consider a humidifier in addition to practicing good hygiene.
“COVID-19 can survive in the environment with a humidity somewhere between 20-40 percent. When humidity gets to be around 60-80 percent, the virus has trouble with survival. Coronaviruses, in general, do not do well with upwards of 40 percent humidity, so one suggestion is to consider using a humidifier though this may only work in a smaller space,” he says.
Additionally, Fichtenbaum says there are other precautions we should be mindful of including avoiding becoming panicked. He also notes that frequent hand washing, “especially after sneezing or coughing” can help minimize spread.
“Keep tissues around and use them to stop spreading droplets from coughs and sneezes around a room. If you’re sick, you should stay home. If you are able to work from home, do so. If you’ve been sick and are returning to work, make sure that you are diligent about wiping down shared devices and spaces such as phones, faucets, and door handles,” says Fichtenbaum. He also says that we should consider the bigger picture.
“When it comes to considering populations at more risk like those who are immunocompromised, have heart disease or lung disease or are over the age of 60 years, travel restrictions might be an inconvenience but they’re not a bad idea. If you’re young and healthy, you might not worry as much about contracting COVID-19, but there is the chance that you may pass it along to a few other people who might be at greater risk. It’s up to everyone to be a part of the community solution.”
If you want to take additional preventive measures against COVID-19, consider the following:
- Direct your coughs and sneezes into the crook of your elbow.
- Frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Maintain distance from people coughing and sneezing around you.
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