When faced with empty store shelves, some people have reached for alternatives — like homemade hand sanitizer or baby wipes.
However, experts like Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatrician in Toronto, worry that people might overestimate the efficacy of baby wipes in killing germs and preventing the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Most baby wipes sold in stores do contain alcohol — the central germ-killing ingredient — but at a much lower percentage than what is required to kill the novel coronavirus.
“We know what kills COVID-19 is an alcohol solution that is 60 per cent or more alcohol,” Kulik told Global News.
“Wipes absolutely don’t have that much alcohol.”
This is because baby wipes are intended for use on sensitive baby skin. Using 60 per cent alcohol would cause “significant rashes and potentially even burning of the skin,” Kulik said.
“(Baby wipes) have as little (alcohol) as needed to gently cleanse the skin, but they’re not sterilizing.”
Homemade hand sanitizer isn’t really ideal, either.
According to Dr. Alon Vaisman, a resident in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto and an expert in infection control, DIY hand sanitizer may be an effective way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus if it’s made correctly, but it’s not foolproof.
“In the right hands, done with a great deal of caution, it may be helpful,” he previously told Global News. “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.
However, if you’re at home with access to soap and water, there’s no reason you should use hand sanitizer instead.
Soap and water still ideal
If you have access to soap and water, “there’s no reason to be flocking to buy disinfectant wipes,” Kulik said.
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,” reads the Canadian government’s website.
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.
“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.”
For cleaning surfaces
Kulik says she uses a homemade bleach solution to clean surfaces in her home — “one cup of bleach to one gallon of water” — but stresses the importance of keeping these products away from kids.
“All of these solutions, whether it’s alcohol-based or peroxide-based or bleach-based, should be kept far out of the way of children, not sitting on countertops,” Kulik said.
“We’re seeing an increased rate of accidental poisonings because these solutions are out and about to clean surfaces but inadvertently being ingested or sprayed … on children.”
The data supports these claims. Health Canada says there has been a clear jump in the number of accidental poisonings from household cleaners since the coronavirus pandemic began.
According to the agency, February and March combined had a 58 per cent increase in the number of reported exposures to cleaning products and disinfectants compared to the same months in 2019.
These include poisonings by exposure to bleaches, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, chlorine and chloramine gases. The most common reports involve bleach, which made up 38 per cent of calls to poison centres in March.
While it’s difficult to prove a direct link, Health Canada believes the spike is due to increased exposure to these products in the home because people are stockpiling items during the pandemic and cleaning more due to fear of spreading COVID-19.
The agency says that people spending more time at home due to the pandemic is also a considerable factor.
There has been a similar spike in accidental poisonings seen in the U.S., according to a recent report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.
— With files from Global News’ Maryam Shah