Updated: Mar 4
As anyone in a profession dealing with children knows, sometimes hand sanitizer can come in really handy. Now normally, I hate putting the Purell stuff on my hands because it kills off not only the bad bacteria, but the good bacteria too. If we are going to keep our immune systems working, we don't want to kill everything we come in contact with.
What most people think of as hand sanitizer is labeled as "antibacterial" which means it actually kills what is on our hands whether it be harmful or beneficial. This use of antibacterial sanitizers has the potential to actually produce antibiotic resistant bacteria. In a sense, the weaker our immune systems get, the more we want to get rid of all the germs by killing them. But every time we do so there is the potential for a germ to live after being exposed to the antibacterial gel and then go on to create a resistant bacteria of some sort. In my optinion, we can keep the truly potent stuff for use in times of an outbreak or when exposed to harmful diseases, and make a milder version if you want to use it day to day.
Why Make it at Home?
Hand sanitizer always comes in plastic. With our society in general so focused on keeping things sterile, the only way to do that is by encapsulating the product in sealed plastic. This causes schools and medical offices to go through tons of plastic bottles on a regular basis, often unable to recycle them. So not only is the regular use of hand sanitizer potentially harming our immune system's long term health, but is also contributing towards the plastic pollution of our planet.
Now, I may not be able to convince my local doctor's office to start making their own hand sanitizer, but I definitely can find an alternative for my personal use. I generally use it since I work with kids so much and don't always have a sink close by. I am also traveling abroad this summer and would like to have something on hand since I won't always have access to clean water. For most people, a good hand washing with soap and warm water is plenty to get rid of most of the dangerous germs we may come into contact with (and is actually still the first defense recommended by the FDA and CDC!). If though you want to have some hand sanitizer around just in case like me, it's actually pretty easy to make at home!
Does the Science Support It?
It's always important when making stuff at home to think about whether the science backs it up. In this article you will find information on whether the FDA and CDC support the use of the ingredients in hand sanitizer in addition to anecdotal evidence that may or may not support that decision. At the bottom, you'll see the complete recipe!
Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe Vera is one of those miracle plants that works to heal almost anything. In common practice, it's most known as a treatment for small cuts and sunburns. It can also be used on cold sores as a topical treatment. Many studies have also been done on how aloe vera gel fights off bacteria it comes in contact with. Studies have shown that it effectively reduces oral pathogens, E. coli and many other types of bacteria!
When making a hand sanitizer then, aloe vera gel is a great base ingredient to work up from! Unless you have access to an aloe vera plant, it usually has to be purchased in a glass or plastic bottle. If you do happen to have a plant, you can harvest the gel straight from the leaves. Just remember that it goes bad pretty quickly since it doesn't have a preservative and will need to be remade much sooner (about every 10-14 days).
Rubbing Alcohol or Witch Hazel
In addition to just aloe vera gel, rubbing alcohol is usually added to hand sanitizer. Rubbing alcohol has quite the research to back it up and will definitely do the trick as a bacterial disinfectant. The CDC officially recommends that any hand sanitizer contain at least 60% alcohol. They state that using less than that percentage can lower the effectiveness of the hand sanitizer or simply prohibit the growth of new bacteria, rather than killing them off. I, however, find rubbing alcohol to be extremely drying. It also smells really strong and as someone who is sensitive to fragrances, it's just too potent to use regularly.
Instead, witch hazel is an alternative to rubbing alcohol that smells less and can be found in bulk. There is preliminary anecdotal evidence that witch hazel has disinfectant properties and small scale studies have been conducted looking at its antibacterial properties against cold sores and other topical lesions (read more here). It is not technically a disinfectant by FDA and CDC regulations, so do be aware of that if you choose that option that is it not officially endorsed. I recommend using witch hazel for an everyday type option and then switching to rubbing alcohol based recipes when it's really warranted.
Witch Hazel is still naturally drying which means if you are putting it on your hands regularly, you need something to keep them moisturized as well. Most recipes online called for Vitamin E oil, but I didn't have any of that on hand. Instead I used Vegetable Glycerin and it worked well. I found that the gel ended up being a little greasy and took a minute more to dry on my hands than I would have liked. Next time I am going to try vitamin E oil and see if it does the same. You might also want to try reducing the quantity of oil as well! Just don't let your hands start drying out and cracking!
Adding essential oils to your homemade hand sanitizer will serve as both aromatherapy and bacterial protection. Although studies comparing all types of essential oils against bacteria are limited, many studies have been done comparing some of the most popular ones such as tea tree, eucalyptus, orange, lemon, oregano, thyme. Each study compared the essential oils to different types of bacteria but almost all found positive results indicating antibacterial properties associated with each one.
A quick google search will give you lists such as this one, with attached references to the published studies themselves. I chose to use orange, tea tree, and cinnamon for this one. Feel free to switch up the types if you like a different smell or are impressed by a study conducted with a different essential oil! Additionally, you can adjust the quantity of drops as preferred (keeping it below 20 to have a safe strength for daily application).
Zero Waste Hand Sanitizer (DIY)
3 tbsp. aloe vera gel*
1 tbsp. witch hazel*
1 tsp. (or less) vegetable glycerin or vitamin E oil
10 total drops of essential oil:
3 drops tea tree
3 drops geranium
4 drops sweet orange
*If you want to make an rubbing alcohol version, simply add 3 Tbsp. rubbing alcohol and 1 Tbsp. aloe vera and then continue as written above! Remember that in order for the recipe to meet CDC guidelines, it must contain at least 60% alcohol. But using 100% alcohol can damage your skin so it should always be mixed with aloe vera or something else.
1. Put the aloe vera gel, witch hazel, and vegetable glycerin in the bowl. Mix them together thoroughly.
2. Pour the ingredients into your container of choice using the funnel.
3. Add the essential oils straight into the container and then shake to mix.
*The recipe makes only about a 1/4 cup in total or around 4 fluid ounces.
Photos taken by Mason Kale Herbert Suda - visit her instagram @masonkale to see more beautiful photos!