Due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, the demand for hand sanitizers has gone through the roof. The choices for consumers are to purchase mass produced products in fancy little bottles containing harsh alcohols, naturally derived products from smaller artisan companies, or… make your own with a few simple ingredients. So let’s examine and explore all of these options so you can be better informed and make wise choices. If you persevere to the end, there are a few great tips and recipes to follow.
I have made many natural hand sanitizers for companies over the years. The last piqued interest was during the SARS outbreak which also had a worldwide effect. So, I am here to inform you of the following:
Mass Produced Commercial Hand Sanitizer
This is the route many have gone in the shelf clearing panic to secure a defense against possible contamination. Mass produced commercial ones are really cheap to make and do tend to be effective. Most are comprised of isopropyl alcohol (one of the cheapest alcohols to purchase), propylene glycol, synthetic fragrance and some thickener such as a carbomer or PEG chemical and voila! You have a hand sanitizer. Put it in a fancy bottle or container with a collectable top and you may be paying an excessive price for a not so skin friendly product that is drying and can cause irritation. Remember hand sanitizers are typically applied several times a day so the irritation will only increase.
Natural Hand Sanitizers
In efforts to have products which are not as harsh, naturally derived- yet still effective, smaller companies and individuals attempt to fill the gap. While there are good products out there, it is important to scrutinize ingredient lists to make sure it will be effective as an anti-microbic substance. Smaller runs and not so flashy packaging can still translate to paying above average price. However, if all ingredients are less harsh, plant derived and well formulated, it may be worth it. Be wary of ingredients such as vitamin e, witch hazel, botanical extracts or even coconut or olive oil in natural sanitizers. These are all great ingredients but useless in sanitizers. They may also inhibit the effectiveness of the product. Find out more from the formulator, history of the business and whether they have any real experience doing this sort of thing. You are relying on this product to work and not spread the virus so it is not time to mess with amateurs or the anal purist who thinks they know what they are doing because it is “natural”. I have listed many of these ingredients below along with my thoughts.
Following is a list of many common ingredients found in hand sanitizers both natural and synthetic with explanation on whether they are harmful, effective, useful or useless.
Isopropyl Alcohol – This is one of the most common ingredients found in commercial hand sanitizers. It is a common alcohol used in medicinal and pharmaceutical applications. While it has strong anti-microbic activity, it has shown to be quite irritating and potentially toxic with repeated use. Effective but Harmful??
Specially Denatured Alcohol (SDA 40 B ) – There are many types of this but it will be a form of ethyl alcohol (used to make drinkable spirits) then other ingredient such as tert-butyl alcohol denatonium benzoate are added in small amounts of 1 % or less to make it undrinkable. These type of alcohols are more expensive but the 99% ethyl alcohol is more gentle on the hands and closest to natural option. IT is typically the alcohols used in perfumery so they generally are safe on the skin. Most useful.
Ethyl Alcohol – One of the most pure and harmless alcohols but strictly prohibited ( permits are needed to purchase) and grossly expensive due to heavy excise taxes ( in Canada). Useful but hard to get and very expensive.
Fragrance – Will make your product smell nice ( if you like that smell ) and cover up the aroma of alcohol but no other helpful function.
Carbomer – a common name for a whole group of thickeners used in most mass produced commercial sanitizers. Tricky to work with in formulations and require more chemistry skills than the average person possesses.
Isopropyl Mysterate – used in topical products to aid absorption into the skin. Not really necessary for a sanitizer. Useless
Cellulose – A common term for many gum like natural or not natural thickeners. Useful to thicken the product as high alcohol content makes it very thin. Another ingredient that can be tricky to work with for the amateur DIY. Useful but tricky.
Propylene Glycol – used to emulsify fragrances and blend with other alcohols – Maybe good for windshield washer but not so skin friendly – Useful but harmful??
Glycerine – a useful humectant to soften and hydrate skin. Helps soften harsh alcohol stripping effect in sanitizers – Inexpensive and useful.
Aloe extract / gel?? – There is so much confusion with this type of ingredient and attempting to use it in any product especially with water can be tricky. In its pure form as gel right from the plant, extract or powdered form, it is expensive, unstable and may actually add microbes and contamination to a hand sanitizer which negates the purpose. Many DIY recipes are floating around about the use of this “gel” and alcohol as a simple sanitizer. Please do not attempt this sort of thing as the aloe will not provide any useful function to a sanitizer. Your end product will not be effective, and possibly harmful. Some gels are already manufactured and not really much aloe, just a small amount with carbomers or other thickeners. These are not “aloe gel” in the purest sense. Avoid unless trained in choosing and using this type of ingredient.
Botanical extracts – not really useful for sanitizers, May add more microbes depending on type and source. Also add unnecessary expense. Useless
FD&C colours – typically used to colour the product to match a container or give illusion of quality. Useless.
Essential oils – a wide range of oils to choose from but only those with experience using these plant based chemicals should be formulating products as the balance of choosing oils which are highly anti microbic, won’t irritate your skin, smell good and in the right amounts requires expertise so do not attempt without training. Do not make sanitizers with only essential oils and water as it will not mix. The amount of essential oil you may need to add to make a product even slightly anti-microbic will be very hazardous to your skin. Essential oils in small amounts may compliment the alcohol content to give an anti-microbic boost but nothing more.
Witch Hazel – While this water based ingredient derived from the hazelnut tree does possess some astringent properties and useful in many creams, lotions and other topical products, it is NOT effective in a hand sanitizer. Full strength only provides mild antiseptic effect, so adding high amounts would still not be effective and add more to the price of your product. Useless.
Vitamin E – I have no idea why this ingredient would be added to a hand sanitizer. All forms of vitamin E are lipid (oil) soluble so they are not going to mix with a water soluble product such as a sanitizer. It will only float on top. Vitamin E is also an antioxidant, not a preservative. The alcohol content of a good sanitizer provides most of the preservative properties anyways. Vitamin E is a wonderful ingredient for many products but completely useless in a hand sanitizer. It’s also really expensive. Useless
A fundamental fact to remember is that the two most important ingredients in a sanitizer are pure alcohol (60-70%) and pure water. Alcohol on it’s own does not have strong anti-microbic activity. It needs to be activated by water. You should always start out with 100% (200 proof) alcohol to ensure the right proportions. Using vodka or other alcoholic spirits are not effective as it is only 40% (Canada) and 60% (USA) so you are starting with percentages that are already not good enough. This also becomes a very expensive ineffective hand sanitizer. You would be much better served by drinking it.
if you are purchasing isopropyl alcohol from a drugstore, make sure it is 99-100%. If you purchase the 70%, there is very little room to add anything else before the alcohol level becomes ineffective.
Don’t add ingredients such as “Aloe” as you may not really know what you are using and as mentioned above, may be adding microbes to your product. If you are adding it in an attempt to thicken the product, the alcohol can’t drop below 60%. No amount of any type of aloe will have a chance of thickening the product.
Don’t bother with other unnecessary ingredients listed above and do NOT add any oil soluble ingredients such as olive, almond or coconut oil. They will only float on top and not mix.
Well, there you have it. You may disagree with me on some or all points, but I have many years in product development, have made many successful product of this type for other companies and offer this information out of safety and concern. This virus must be contained and a valuable way to do it is to keep hands clean. Poorly made product derived from Social Media stars is just plain irresponsible and dangerous.
Here is a recipe for a simple hand sanitizer spray that is easy to follow and has no pointless ingredients. This has been formulated by a product developer with 30+ years experience. As with all hand sanitizers, this should be used in addition to regular hand washing.
Simple Hand Sanitizer Spray Recipe
2/3 Cup Isopropyl or SD Alcohol – As close to 100% or 200 Proof as possible
5ml Glycerine (1 teaspoon)
(Optional) Add up to 20 drops essential oil. Some suggestions for antimicrobial oils would be Eucalyptus, Ti-Tree, Lemon, Lavender, Orange, Lemongrass.
1/3 cup of water
2. Drop in essential oils if adding. Stir the mixture and ensure the essential oil mixes with the glycerine and SD alcohol
3. Add water to mixture.
4. Pour into spray bottles.
Makes about 250ml hand sanitizer spray at approx. 65% alcohol concentration (if you use 100% SD or isopropyl alcohol)