One of the most effective basic measures to protect against the Covid-19 virus? Handwashing. Advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) is to use soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub (sanitizing gel). However, during pre-lockdown, panic-buying depleted most stores’ hand-sanitiser stock. This forced many people online, in search of recipes to whip up a home-made hand sanitiser.
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The basic ingredients most online recipes call for are rubbing alcohol (which contains isopropyl alcohol), aloe vera and essential oils. The question is: how good are these home-made hand sanitisers? Not very, as it turns out!
We did some digging to find out why, turning to a few sources for an explanation (read about these sources at the end of the article)…
What makes a hand sanitiser effective?
If you’re going to use a hand sanitiser, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends one with an alcohol concentration of between 60-95%. Why? These have proven to be more effective at killing germs.
What’s the issue with a home-made hand sanitiser?
Online news outlet CNET summarised the problem quite elegantly: the end result of a DIY solution is likely to be either too harsh on the skin or ineffective against germs.
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The risks of using rubbing alcohol at home
Getting the ratios between alcohol and other ingredients right when you’re trying to blend a home-made hand sanitiser is no easy feat. “You can’t control how the alcohol gets diluted in the final product,” CNET points out.
Basically, if you have too little alcohol, your recipe is ineffective; but if you have too much alcohol, you can harm your skin. After chatting to New York emergency physician Dr Robert Glatter, MarketWatch explained: “Used topically, isopropyl alcohol can dry out your skin and cause superficial burns – and damaged skin is more vulnerable to the types of infections you’re looking to avoid in the first place.”
Pitfalls of trying alternative ingredients
Certain home-made hand-sanitiser recipes suggest using vodka for the alcohol portion. Not a good idea, says trusted health-info site Medical News Today: “Vodka typically contains only 40% alcohol… and the FDA have only approved the use of USP-grade ingredients for producing hand sanitisers. Vodka is not a USP-grade alcohol.”
As for those essential oils used to counteract the harsh alcohol smell in DIY recipes? CNET adds that these could cause an allergic reaction for some people. It’s another reason, continues CNET, why both the WHO and FDA’s guidelines for making hand rubs don’t recommend using these or other fragrances – and, it’s crucial to note, their recipe guidelines “are designed for medical professionals, not the average consumer,” adds CNET.
Concern about at-home prep spaces and tools
If you’re not using clean tools and work spaces to mix your hand-sanitizing solution, you could unwittingly “contaminate your batch with bacteria,” says CNET. The CDC is also vocal about the “need to work under sterile conditions to make the product”, which is one of the reasons the organisation doesn’t encourage the production or use of DIY hand sanitisers.
Many health authorities don’t recommend that you make or use your own DIY hand sanitiser for reasons including the following:
1.Getting ingredient ratios correct is very difficult:
- The alcohol content could be too high, damaging your skin. Superficial burns and cracking from severe dryness make your hands vulnerable to invading germs.
- The alcohol content could be too low, making it useless against COVID-19. Hand sanitisers need to have an alcohol content of at least 60% to be effective against germs.
2. You could contaminate your batch if your prep space and tools aren’t sterile, again, rendering your sanitiser useless as protection against germs.
If you’re after a hand sanitiser, the best thing to do is to wait for stock of properly made store-bought versions with an alcohol content of at least 60%. The WHO says hand sanitisers should only be used when your hands aren’t visibly dirty though; if they are, soap and water is what you should use. Also interesting to note is that the CDC says plain soap is just as effective as antibacterial soap at removing germs.
Remember though, no matter the soap you use, wash your hands thoroughly (even under nails) for the full 20 seconds. When applying hand sanitiser (for example, when you’re out at the shops) also make sure you’re rubbing enough of it properly all over your hands, until your hands are dry (meaning the sanitiser has soaked in).
Sources mentioned in this article
Established in 1948, this respected global organisation works to support its Member States in the healthcare arena. As is the case with the current pandemic, the WHO helps its 194 Member States, including South Africa, prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies with public-health consequences.
This American governmental agency is all about “detecting and responding to new and emerging health threats… putting science and advanced technology into action to prevent disease”. The organisation’s work extends beyond the US, including into South Africa, seeing it help “other countries increase their ability to prevent, detect, and respond to health threats on their own.”
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An online media outlet, working out of the US, providing business news and financial market information.
A trusted health-information site that publishes content reviewed by a team of medical professionals.
This renowned governmental agency works in America to ensure public safety when it comes to certain foods, drugs, vaccines and the like. Their guidelines have been useful beyond US borders.
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PLEASE NOTE: The information in this article is not intended to replace recognised professional medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about any health concerns, and for best practice in following health-safety guidelines.