Homemade hand sanitizer: Can it protect you from the new coronavirus?

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How effective are homemade sanitizers?
WATCH: How effective are homemade sanitizers? – Mar 2, 2020

Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” For the latest coronavirus news, click here.

As concern over the novel coronavirus continue to rise in Canada and around the world, some stores have reported dwindling stocks of medical items like face masks, hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.

Public health officials say 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in Canada so far, with 18 cases reported in Ontario and eight in British Columbia. One presumptive positive case has been reported in Quebec.

In an effort to prepare for the worst, some people are attempting to make their own hand sanitizer with recipes found online — but is this effective?

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According to Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infectious diseases and control physician at the University Health Network, DIY hand sanitizer may be an effective way to prevent the spread of coronavirus if it’s made correctly, but it’s not ideal.

“In the right hands, done with a great deal of caution, it may be helpful,” he said. “But people might not do it effectively. People might not know what they’re doing and make concoctions that aren’t effective … and might be costly to them.”

“This isn’t a standardized or approved product and it shouldn’t be used in place of other things.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has an official recommendation for the local production of hand sanitizer, but it’s really only intended for populations in the world that don’t have access to medical-grade products, said Vaisman.

“The recommendations and the ingredients are all directed towards low-resource settings across the world,” he said.

As an individual trying to remain vigilant about avoiding the new coronavirus, try to find a balance between efficacy and accessibility, said Vaisman.

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“For example, for health-care workers who are seeing multiple patients a day, it’s not practical … or feasible to wash your hands every time. Alcohol rub is an effective way of [keeping yourself clean] that isn’t as time-consuming,” he said.
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However, if you’re at home with access to soap and water, there’s no reason you should use hand sanitizer instead.

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Water is “just as effective and won’t drain your resources,” said Vaisman.

“In rare circumstances — if you want to use your own concoction that’s been made carefully [and] you’ve followed the instructions carefully — I guess it’s better than nothing,” he said.

Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, assistant professor of viral pathogenesis in the department of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba, agrees.

“Hand sanitizers are definitely helpful when you’re in a bind and need something on the spot. However, they are not as broadly effective as soap and water at disinfection,” Kindrachuk previously told Global News.

He points to a guide on the caveats of hand sanitizers by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“The effectiveness of sanitizers can be impacted by things like dirt and grease so those variables should be considered,” he said.

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“Ultimately, the recommendations are for a sanitizer that has at least 60 per cent alcohol as an ingredient. This is essential for the inactivation of viruses (as well as other germs). Please look at the ingredients on the bottle to check for the alcohol percentage.”

The importance of handwashing

Washing your hands regularly is one of the first tips recommended by Canadian public health officials for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“You can stay healthy and prevent the spread of infections by … washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds,” says the Canadian government’s website.

“Individuals can practice everyday prevention measures like frequent hand washing, staying home when sick, and covering coughs and sneezes,” the Centers for Disease Control’s page says on how to prevent COVID-19 spread in communities.

Jason Tetro, microbiologist and host of the Super Awesome Science Show podcast, likened it to washing your dishes after getting them greasy.

“You use a surfactant [like soap] because surfactants break down lipid layers, and so the coronavirus is no different than other envelope viruses, like the flu, when it comes to being exposed to soap and water,” he previously told Global News.How many times a person usually washes their hands can vary, Tetro said.“The most important thing is that if your hands have touched a surface or have been in an environment where you cannot tell what the microbial composition probably is, then it’s a very good likelihood that you want to wash your hands,” he said.
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Other recommendations include coughing and sneezing into your elbow and avoiding touching your face.

The WHO also advises keeping a distance of at least three feet between yourself and a person who is coughing or sneezing, to prevent exposure to droplets: “When someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus.”

The new coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China. As of Sunday, there were more than 87,000 reported cases worldwide and close to 3,000 deaths.

— With files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson and Maryam Shah

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