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Myth No. 5 - DIY Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizer with Essential Oils

Let’s make this a fun quiz. Name three things wrong with this product title - “DIY Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizer with Essential Oils”.

False information is appearing all over social media to take advantage of the widespread COVID-19 panic. Psychologically, we humans find solace when we feel a sense of control (even if it’s a false sense of control) over a panic situation. That’s why when we fear for the shortage of hand sanitizers, the idea of DIY alternatives is naturally appealing.

Let’s take a look at the popular DIY recipe that calls for approx. 90-99% isopropyl alcohol, and a remainder of aloe vera or glycerin. Isopropyl alcohol (more commonly, “rubbing alcohol”) has 68-72% ethanol content. To kill microbial pathogens such as viruses, 60-90% ethanol content is required, with 70% being the optimal concentration. The concentration of common household rubbing alcohol is designed with this optimal ethanol to water ratio in mind as the 30% water content is critical to support the penetration of the cell wall of the microbe in order for the ethanol to effectively destroy the proteins within and therefore killing the micro-organism. Though the addition of aloe vera or glycerin may play a crucial role in protecting your skin from severely drying out upon contact with the isopropyl alcohol, they unfortunately throw off the optimal ethanol to water balance and reduce the “sanitizing” effectiveness of the formula.

Let’s take a look next at the alcohol-free sanitizer recipes commonly found online or promoted by essential oil companies. They read something like this: Fill a glass bottle with 5 drops of lemon essential oil, 5 drops of tea tree essential oil, a tablespoon of aloe vera, 2 tablespoons of witch hazel, and top up with distilled water. Sorry to say this is many times more scary than the previous formula with alcohol. We already learned from Myth No. 2 that essential oils must be fully solubilized in aqueous solutions to avoid skin sensitization. Where is the solubiliser in this recipe? There is none. This recipe relies on the 10 drops of tea tree and lemon essential oils alone to kill the pathogens. Even if you add to it essential oils with the most powerful anti-microbial content (eucalyptus, lemongrass, peppermint etc.), for essential oils to have sufficient anti-microbial strength (matching that of isopropyl alcohol), the concentration would be much too high to be safely applied on human skin. Another issue is the lack of preservative in this hydrous solution (refer to Myth No. 4 to learn all about the importance of preservation). As ironic as it sounds, this sanitizer recipe is a breeding ground for bacteria.

At times like now when personal hygiene is more important than ever, these DIY recipes will only exacerbate the situation by providing a false sense of security. Furthermore, even the most legitimate hand sanitizers sold in stores are second to proper handwashing from a cleanliness perspective and definitely from a skin welfare perspective. Too often I see moms put sanitizer on their babies’ or toddlers’ hands when there are handwashing stations readily available nearby. Please remember that an infant’s skin is much more delicate than that of an adult and will greater suffer the damage from the drying ethanol in these products.

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