Ask the Pharmacist

Q) I have looked everywhere for hand sanitizer and it is sold out everywhere I have looked. What should I do?

A) Well, the first thing is not to panic. While the use of a hand sanitizer can be useful in helping prevent you from catching Covid-19, it is by no means irreplaceable or the most important prevention step you can take. That hasn’t stopped many people from stocking up or buying it online for exorbitant prices (2 8 ounce bottles of Purell were recently listed for approximately $80 on Amazon) or making their own home made versions which are frequently of questionable effectiveness if not manufactured correctly. So relax, a lack of hand sanitizer isn’t a life or death type issue and many microbiologists claim that its role has been greatly exaggerated.

Before we get to alternatives let’s take a second to discuss hand sanitizers in general. First, not all hand sanitizers use alcohol. Ones that contain at least 60% alcohol are effective at killing the corona virus by disrupting its membrane, thereby, swiftly rendering the virus inactive. Some hand sanitizers use ingredients such as benzalkonium chloride or chlorhexidine and their effectiveness against a corona type virus is relatively unknown and, at best, is likely to be less effective (but not necessarily useless). As well, some hand sanitizers use alcohol levels that are below the 60% minimum that is necessary to kill a virus rendering them largely a waste of money and may prevent you from taking other precautions due to a false sense of security.

It should also be noted that while alcohol based hand sanitizers do work on Covid-19, there are other types of virus, such as the norovirus (which is infamous for the diarrhea it inflicts on people affected by it), and which are completely immune to the sanitizer’s antiseptic effects. So, while hand sanitizers have a role to play in disease prevention, it is definitely secondary to other measures you could enact.

Just about every researcher agrees that the most important thing you can do, even if you have access to hand sanitizer, is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Next time you wash your hands, count how long you normally wash your hands. You might be surprised to learn it is nowhere near the recommended 20 seconds (and guessing that it is not more than 20 seconds). In studies, soap and water consistently has been proven to be more effective than hand sanitizers in fighting viruses.

Hand washing is particularly important

· before eating
· while preparing food
· after going to the bathroom
· after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose
· before touching your face

This last point of touching your face is a habit that you should gain control of and stop as it is more important and useful at reducing the spread of Covid-19 and other viruses than the diligent use of a Purell type product. This is due to the way the virus is spread. It can only enter your body through a mucus membrane such as your eyes, nose or mouth. Thus, when you touch a surface such as a doorknob or money, there is the potential for the virus to get on your hands where it cannot enter your body (unless you have an open cut there). Eventually that virus could gain access to your bloodstream when your hands migrate elsewhere.

One of the reasons this corona virus is spreading so rapidly is that it is capable of surviving on inanimate surfaces for extended periods of time. Some viruses such as the flu, can only last about 24 hours away from a human host but Covid-19 looks to be able to be transmittable for up to 9 days on all the door handles, coins and counters that we touch. This is one of the main facts that has lead Harvard researcher Marc Lipsitch to hypothesize that he believes that eventually as many as 40 to 70% of the world’s population will eventually contract this disease, which just serves to further emphasize how important getting into good hygiene habits truly is.

Now sometimes it’s hard or inconvenient to wash your hands with soap and water as you may not have access to water and/or soap and therein lays the beauty of hand sanitizers. They can be kept in your pocket and pulled out and used in an instant. However, with the lack of sanitizers available, there are recipes available to make your own hand sanitizer. Just using plain alcohol is not recommended since most of your drinkable versions do not contain enough alcohol to be effective . Using just plain ethanol or rubbing alcohol is not recommended as it removes the natural oils from your skin and with repeated use, it can put your hands at risk of developing cracks which in turn puts you at increased risk of contracting the virus via these cracks.

However, for the occasional need that arises, making your own version is not a terrible idea. One recipe contains:

· 2/3 cup rubbing alcohol (also known as isopropyl)
· 1/3 cup of aloe vera gel (makes it easier and thicker to apply)
· 5-10 drops of an essential oil like lavender (optional but it takes away the alcohol smell)

Basically, blend the three ingredients in a bowl and ideally store it in a spray bottle for use when required. It should be good for several weeks if stored in closed bottles. For more information about this or any other health related questions, contact your pharmacist.