First, masks. Now, a hand sanitizer shortage. Before you hound a monster jug of gel—or try a homemade recipe—here's what you should know.

By Renee Cherry
March 04, 2020

N-95 masks aren't the only thing flying off the shelves in light of the continual uptick of COVID-19 coronavirus cases. The latest essential on seemingly everyone's shopping list? Hand sanitizer—and so much so that stores are experiencing a shortage, according to The New York Times.

Since it's marketed as antibacterial and not antiviral, you might be wondering if hand sanitizer actually has the potential to kill the dreaded coronavirus. Short answer: yes.

There's a solid amount of research backing up the fact that hand sanitizer can kill some viruses, and it definitely has a place in coronavirus prevention, says Kathleen Winston, Ph.D., R.N., dean of nursing at the University of Phoenix. In a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, hand sanitizer was effective in killing another type of coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, among other viruses. (Related: Is Coronavirus As Dangerous As It Sounds?)

And if you need further clarity, just look at TikTok (yes, you read that right). Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) took to the social media app to share "reliable" advice on how to protect yourself amid the coronavirus outbreak. "Frequently clean your hands by using an alcohol-based hand rub product like a gel, or wash your hands with soap and water," says Benedetta Allegranzi, technical lead of infection prevention and control, in the video. (Umm, can we please take a second to appreciate that WHO joined TikTok? Doctors are taking over the app too.)

While hand sanitizer can be helpful, washing your hands with soap and water is still your best bet for avoiding germs. "In community settings where individuals are handling food, playing sports, working, or engaging in outdoor hobbies, hand sanitizers are not effective," says Winston. "Hand sanitizer can remove some germs, but it is not a replacement for soap and water." But when you can't score some H20 and soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a safe second, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Keyword being "alcohol-based." If you're able to snag store-bought hand sanitizer, both the CDC and Winston say to make sure it's at least 60-percent alcohol for utmost protection. (Related: The Most Common Coronavirus Symptoms to Look Out for, According to Experts

Meanwhile, Google searches for "homemade hand sanitizer gel," have surged, no-doubt because stores have been selling out. But can DIY protection work just as well against the coronavirus? If necessary, making your own hand sanitizer gel can work, but you run the risk of coming up with a formula that's not as effective as commercial options, explains Winston. (Related: Can an N95 Mask Actually Protect You from the Coronavirus?)

"The main concern is the percentage of alcohol," she says. "You can dilute the effectiveness of sanitizer by adding too many ingredients like essential oils and fragrance. If you look at the commercial brands that are most effective, they have minimal ingredients." If you're set on doing antiviral arts and crafts by mixing your own, be sure alcohol makes up more than 60-percent of the volume of ingredients you're using. (The WHO also has a hand sanitizer recipe online—though it's pretty equipment and step-intensive.)

If you find that your area got hit by a hand sanitizer shortage, though, rest assured that washing your hands with soap and water is an even better option.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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