The Handy Guide to Hand Sanitizer: Does DIY Sanitizer Work?

By David Kim
The Handy Guide to Hand Sanitizer: Does DIY Sanitizer Work?

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, it’s ever more important to practice basic hygiene and disinfect one’s environment.

Unsurprisingly, hand sanitizer has become a hot commodity, quickly flying off shelves as soon as it’s stocked. Even if you can brave the lines to obtain it, you might find that store-bought sanitizer dries out your hands.

If you’ve been wondering about making it yourself, you’re in the right place. We decided to make our own sanitizer as well.

Here’s what we found out.

DIY Hand Sanitizer: What is It?

Recipes for homemade hand sanitizer are abundant, but generally involve mixing alcohol (usually isopropyl) with essential oils and moisturizers (e.g. aloe vera). Some people also use high-ABV liquor or other sources of ethanol as the active ingredient.

We know that sanitizers can dry out your hands, so we want to suspend a germ-killing ingredient (alcohol) into a soothing, gel-like mixture.

We’ve combed through the science and the recipes to find out what makes the best sanitizers.

The Key Ingredients for Homemade Hand Sanitizer

Store-bought hand sanitizers contain more than just alcohol for sanitizer. For example, benzethonium chloride, benzalkonium chloride, and povidone-iodine are all common antimicrobial ingredients for hand sanitizers — but DIY sanitizer-makers won’t find these ingredients on grocery shelves.

That’s okay, though. The good news is that there are plenty of ingredients you can use to make powerful yet gentle sanitizer.

Disclaimer: some of these industrial-grade ingredients can be irritating to your skin. The benefit of making your own sanitizer is that you can customize the mix for your skin’s sensitivity. You just need to know a few basics.

Experts say that a hand sanitizer needs to be at least 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropyl, but when you had a high-potency alcohol to your sanitizer mix, you might be producing something that’s just as drying as the store-bought type.

We experimented with some recipes, and here’s what we found:

  • Sorry, that bottle of vodka probably won’t do the trick in your sanitizer recipe — unless it’s Spirytus or another brand that’s at least 140 proof or 70 percent alcohol.
  • Not all rubbing alcohol is made alike. Look for solutions that are at least 70 percent isopropyl alcohol.

In general, you should aim for a 2:1 ratio of alcohol to the base. Otherwise, you risk either damage to your skin or the inefficacy of the solution. Remember, the more ingredients you add, the higher proof the alcohol needs to be.

Science also says that hydrogen peroxide is a critical addition to the mix. Research published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found that a combination of alcohol with .5% percent hydrogen peroxide can deactivate viruses.

Here is the WHO’s officially recommended formulation for an effective hand sanitizer.

Remember, you want to make sure you don’t overdo it on the alcohol.

Otherwise, your sanitizer mix might be just as drying as store-bought formulas. Ever had cracked hands? It’s not fun. Sanitizers that are too strong or riddled with strong chemicals can cause cracks that might interrupt your body’s primary barrier to germs: the outer layer of your skin. That’s why it’s important to incorporate moisturizing ingredients into your mix.

Even essential oils can strip the skin of moisture or cause irritation, especially if they’re not diluted properly. Here’s a handy-dandy chart for mixing essential oils with a carrier oil such as fractionated coconut oil.


Mixture amount chart

Source: Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals


An Easy Sanitizer Recipe

If you’re eager to get started, don’t worry, we’ve found an easy recipe for you. This one is based on the World Health Organization’s recommendations. We test-drove it ourselves and loved the results.


  • 12 fluid ounces 91% rubbing alcohol*
  • 2 teaspoon emollient (glycerin, fractionated coconut oil, or other skin-friendly nut or seed oil) 1 tablespoon 3% hydrogen peroxide
  • 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoon distilled or boiled water
  • Optional: A few drops essential oils per bottle


Combine the alcohol, peroxide, and distilled water in a sterile glass jar. Add your emollient and shake to mix. Separate the solution into clean spray bottles, then add a few drops of your desired essential oil(s) to each bottle.

You can take a similar approach to making your own disinfectant spray that’s suitable for surfaces in your home.

If you like this recipe, you can add fractionated coconut oil, aloe vera, or Vitamin E oil as an emollient to make it safe and soothing for your hands.

How to Mix Your Hand Sanitizer Safely

Be sure to follow all safety practices when mixing your sanitizer. Some people have experienced flames or chemical burns because they mixed ingredients improperly.

Remember, any alcohol is flammable! Always work in a well-ventilated space.

Plus, if ingredients that contain sugar or that have been contaminated are added to the mix, you could be giving microbes a chance to grow on your hands — or in the sanitizer itself.

The containers and utensils you use to make your mix must be thoroughly sterilized.

How to Use Hand Sanitizer

Whether homemade or not, hand sanitizer is only effective when used properly — and even then, it might not kill 99.9 percent of germs. Many people drench their hands in sanitizer, then immediately wipe it off. This practice doesn’t give the solution time to work. It’s no different than simply running water over your hands for a couple of seconds.

To truly disinfect your hands, you need to give it time: about 15 seconds for hand sanitizer, 20 seconds for soap and water. Let the hand sanitizer dry naturally so that it can kill microbes as it works.

Handwashing 101

Even though well-made hand sanitizers are great to have in a pinch, they’re no substitute for proper handwashing, say experts. Before they go into surgery, doctors thoroughly wash their hands for several minutes. They don’t simply squirt hand sanitizers on their hands and start working on the patient.

Wash your hands for the time it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Be sure to use plenty of soap and warm water, then lather thoroughly and cover all parts of your hands.

This simple practice is sufficient to destroy any traces of SARS-CoV-19 on your hands, because the delicate shell of the virus cannot withstand a soapy solution.

Handwashing can also kill other microbes such as Staph and E.coli, which can live a long time on dry surfaces but not in soapy water.

So, if you don’t have access to soap and water and need to clean your hands in a pinch, hand sanitizer is your best bet.

However, you should make sure to thoroughly coat your hands with the sanitizer for at least 15 seconds. Then, let it naturally dry. Avoid touching your face until you can wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Wrapping Up

In a pinch, hand sanitizer helps keep your hands clean as long as it’s made and used properly. If you’re out running errands, spending time in nature, or otherwise away from a sink, hand sanitizer is important to have on hand. (Still, avoid touching your face.) The above recipes can help you fully customize hand sanitizer to your needs.

Thorough handwashing is also crucial to keeping harmful microbes off your hands. Ideally, you use both sanitizers and soap to clean your hands regularly. By making hand sanitization part of your routine, you can protect yourself and others from the spread of disease.

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