The #1 DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipe Mistake People Make…and How It Can Hurt Your Family

(Please spread the word on social media! Thank you!)

I’m not going to make you wait until the end of this article to find out why most DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipes can hurt your family.

The simple answer is because they don’t work. Not only that, but sometimes they even encourage bacteria to grow inside the DIY hand sanitizer.

That’s right…each time you think you’re cleaning your hands, you could actually be spraying more bacteria onto them instead.

Making homemade versions of popular cleaning supplies that actually work is surprisingly difficult.

(Or not so surprising, if you’ve ever tried to make Homemade Dishwasher Detergent using recipes found online…)

(*Note: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I might receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using those links*)

The problem with most DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipes is that while the people sharing these recipes are well-intentioned, they don’t understand how or why the recipe should work. And that’s where I come in.

#ObsessivelyResearched

How to Know if a DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipe is Good (…or not)

There are basically 2 questions you should always ask yourself when looking for a DIY recipe online.

  • Is it safe?
  • Does it work?

But I know it’s confusing to even know how to answer those 2 questions for most DIY recipes! So let me help you out.

Is it safe? (aka will it grow bacteria instead of kill it?)

I’m and RN, but I’m also kind of crunchy. When I first started making Homemade skincare products and cleaning products, I wanted to avoid preservatives as much as possible. I wanted to use only “all natural” ingredients. But…

Water breeds life, y’all.

And that’s a GOOD thing for our world. But it’s sort of a bad thing for preservative-free DIY products. Because the kind of life that grows in our DIY products is going to be things like bacteria and yeast. And we definitely don’t want to put that on our hands.

So the things you want to look for when evaluating a DIY recipe are:

  1. Does it need a preservative?
  2. If yes, does it contain a preservative?
  3. If yes, does it contain enough preservative?

Does Homemade Hand Sanitizer need a preservative?

For a Homemade Hand Sanitizer, answer #1 is a resounding YES! It definitely needs a preservative because the final product will contain water.

Don’t be fooled when a DIY recipe calls for things like Vodka or Witch Hazel…both of those products are actually made up of a combination of additional ingredients. For example, Vodka is 40% ethanol and 60% water.

So even if a recipe doesn’t explicitly tell you to “add water”, you need to be on the look-out for hidden sources of water in the other ingredients.

And if it includes water, it will always needs a preservative (unless you plan to refrigerate it and use it within 2-7 days…but it’s not very convenient to carry a fridge around when you need your hand sanitizer, so…)

Does the Hand Sanitizer Recipe contain a preservative?

Once you’ve determined that your DIY Hand Sanitizer needs a preservative, then you have to figure out if the recipe contains one already.

Now, there are a ton of all-natural ingredients out there that people CLAIM work as a preservative. For example, many recipes might suggest adding Vitamin E as a preservative…only problem is that it’s not a preservative at all!!

Vitamin E can prolong the shelf-life of carrier oils like jojoba or olive oil. This prevents them from going rancid as quickly…but is definitely not the same thing as preventing yucky germs from growing.

One all-natural preservative that is perfect for hand sanitizer is alcohol. Which is very convenient, because it’s also an active ingredient that can prevent and destroy microbes!

However, this immediately means that those “kid-friendly”, alcohol-free Hand Sanitizer Recipes are probably something you want to stay away from. After all, if it needs a preservative, but doesn’t contain one…is it really all that kid-friendly when your homemade hand sanitizer actually spreads icky germs to your kids?

That would be a hard no for me…

Does it contain enough preservative?

Just like you need to add the right amount of seasoning to a meal in order to make it taste perfect, you also need to add the right amount of preservative to your Homemade Hand Sanitizer so that it is perfectly protected.

And when it comes to using alcohol as a preservative, the magic number is 25%. This means that a minimum of 25% of the final recipe has to be alcohol.

And remember, we’re talking about TRUE alcohol amounts, not the total amount of vodka (or whatever other alcohol you’re using). So sometimes it’s going to require a bit of math.

I’ll show you an example in a moment, but just to give you an idea now…if you mixed 1-cup of Vodka (40% alcohol) with 1-cup of plain water (0% alcohol), then you would end up with a final product that contains 20% alcohol.

Does that make sense?

Is it effective? (aka: Does it even work?)

Once you’ve determined if an online recipe is safe, then we want to decide if it’s effective.

And there’s a second “magic number” when it comes to hand sanitizers: it’s 60%.

60% is the minimum alcohol content that you need to start destroying nasty bacteria and viruses on surfaces. If you only use between 50%-60%, it may still be effective for some microbes.

And if the alcohol content is under 50%? Then some researchers suggest that you’re actually feeding the bacteria that you were hoping to get rid of…

Some research studies even suggest that a higher alcohol rate might maximize the effectiveness of hand sanitizers. This research study looked at viruses that are similar to corona viruses (not COVID-19 itself…), and concluded that ethanol (aka alcohol) is effective at inactivating them at concentrations of 62%-70%.

Answering the “effectiveness” question is also going to take a little bit of math, but luckily it’s the same exact math equation that you already did to figure out if the hand sanitizer recipe has enough preservative in it to be safe.

One more thing…more alcohol is not always better. Just because 65%-ish is better than 45% at destroying germs, does not mean that 100% alcohol is best.

That’s because the alcohol needs time to deactivate the bacteria and viruses. One minute of contact time is usually the standard recommendation, and frankly…100% alcohol would evaporate too quickly. So stick with a percentage that is less than that.

Can I use essential oils in homemade hand sanitizer?

You sure can! But…there’s a couple caveats.

Can essential oils be used as a preservative?

First off, essential oils are one of the ingredients that lots of people claim are a preservative…but they’re most likely not. At least, not the way that most people use them.

Let me explain…

Essential oils do have a wide variety of anti-microbial properties. And different essential oils will have different properties depending on their chemical make-up.

They will also have different properties based on how diluted they are. And that’s really the key factor that makes them a bad choice as a preservative.

See, you always have to balance the dilution rate of essential oils with the “dose” that will make it effective. And when it comes to being a preservative…well, frankly, you usually need a high enough concentration that would make it potentially unsafe to use on your skin.

And since there are sooo many factors to consider when trying to use an essential oil as a preservative (Which chemical components do you need? How strong does it need to be? Is that a skin-safe concentration?), and most people just don’t know enough about essential oils to answer those questions, even if there is some research on it.

Basically, you’d need to be a pretty knowledgable chemist AND aromatherapist to be able to attempt to make this work. And frankly, I would not feel comfortable attempting this at all!

So don’t count on using essential oils as a preservative.

How to add essential oils to hand sanitizer

The main thing to remember when adding essential oils to hand sanitizer is that water and oil do not mix.

I mean, obviously you know this already.

But sooo many DIY recipes online recommend putting a few drops of essential oil into whatever water-based product they’re making. And your essential oil drops just float on top. So you “shake well” before each use.

(But watch what happens…those essential oil droplets immediately start to float back up to the top!!)

  • Worst Case Scenario: If you are using the essential oils to supplement the sanitizing power of the alcohol in your homemade hand sanitizer, then each spritz is going to have an uneven and unpredictable “dose” of essential oil in it.
  • Best Case Scenario: If you are only using the essential oils to make your homemade hand sanitizer smell better, then you might accidentally be applying too high of a “dose” onto your skin…there is no way of telling since the essential oils are not evenly incorporated into the product

The good news is that essential oils are largely safe. The bad news is that’s why there are so many bad DIY recipes out there. Which leads us to…

Essential Oil Solubilization

The truth is, if you want to add essential oils to a water-based product the right way, then you need to solubilize them.

(Such a fun word to say: solubilize. After you’ve practiced saying it a few times without tripping over your tongue, that is…)

Solubilization looks like essential oils magically dissolving into a water-like liquid. And luckily for our DIY hand sanitizer, ethanol/alcohol happens to be a solubilizer!

In order for alcohol to be an effective solubilizer, however, we need another “magic number:” 95%. As in, we have to add our essential oils to a solution that has at least a 95% alcohol content.

Personally, I prefer to use 100% ethanol for my concoctions.

Once you have solubilized/dissolved your essential oils into your alcohol, then you can dilute it with water (or other ingredients) to achieve whatever percentage of alcohol you want for your final product…without the essential oils floating to the top. Score!

Analysis of 2 different hand sanitizer recipes

So let me show you how your new thought process will work in action by analyzing two different DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipes that I recently saw posted online.

Analysis of Hand Sanitizer Recipe 1:

Notice…I am NOT recommending this recipe, and it is not my original recipe. I’m only analyzing the ingredients for you so that you can learn how to do this for yourself.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 (equivalent to 24 tsp) Cup Distilled Water
  • 1 Tbsp (equivalent to 3 tsp) Vodka (40% alcohol)
  • 1 tsp Witch Hazel (15% alcohol)
  • 1 tsp Coconut Oil
  • 4 drops Lavender essential oil
  • 4 drops Lemon essential oil

So…does this hand sanitizer recipe need a preservative?

Absolutely, yes! There is water in the recipe, so we want to make sure that we either refrigerate the finished product OR add a preservative.

(SIDE NOTE: It’s always best practice to use distilled water in DIY recipes. Tap water and spring water both have additional minerals and all sorts of other microscopic things that can interact with the other ingredients in your recipe. Distilled water has had everything removed except the H2O. END SIDE NOTE)

Next…does this hand sanitizer recipe have a preservative?

Yes, it does! Vodka is the obvious one, with a 40% alcohol content. But Witch Hazel also contains alcohol, usually around 15%.

Finally…does it contain enough preservative?

Many recipes may look plausible until this point. But don’t stop yet, because now we need to do a little bit of math.

Notice how I converted everything to teaspoons for convenience (I’m an RN, so I had to learn how to do this in nursing school, believe it or not…but you can easily do the conversions using Google!)

We need to calculate the percentage of alcohol that’s left in the final product:

  1. First, calculate how many total teaspoons of alcohol are in the recipe: 3tsp * 40% (for the Vodka) + 1 tsp * 15% (for the Witch Hazel) = 1.35 tsp
  2. Next, calculate how much liquid is in the entire recipe = 29 tsp
  3. Divide the amount of alcohol by the total amount of liquid: 1.35tsp / 29tsp = 0.047 = 4.7% Final Alcohol Content

And 4.7% is waaaay too low to work as a preservative (which requires 25% alcohol content).

Will this homemade hand sanitizer be effective?

Of course not!! You need at least 60% alcohol to be an effective hand sanitizer…4.7% is obviously not going to cut it.

Are the essential oils being used safely and effectively in this hand sanitizer recipe?

Yes…the essential oils are properly diluted in the Coconut Oil. 8 drops of essential oil in 1 teaspoon of carrier oil is approximately a 5% dilution rate. For most people, this would be a safe dilution rate to use in hand sanitizer, even if you got the entire glob of coconut oil on your hands in one application.

So is it being used effectively? Well, for one thing, the essential oil-infused coconut oil is going to be floating on TOP of your hand sanitizer. So no…not so effective.

Also, there’s no way to solubilize the essential oils into the hand sanitizer, because ideally you need at least 95% alcohol content to be able to do that. And none of these ingredients start with that high of an alcohol content.

Well…can this essential oil act as a preservative in this recipe? Nope again. Besides the fact that the oils will be floating at the top, you also have to consider that the 5% essential oils dilution rate only considers the coconut oil.

If you calculate the dilution rate within the entire recipe (assuming you could evenly distribute the essential oils in the hand sanitizer, which you can’t in this recipe), then the true dilution rate drops to a mere 0.17%. Eek.

But the essential oils can help kill germs on my hands…right? Theoretically, the essential oils could help the alcohol kill germs on your hands. For example, this research study showed that certain essential oils at 2.5% dilution rates showed significant anti-microbial activity. But in all honesty, I’m not sure there’s enough thorough research to be clear on exact dilution rates for different types of oils to know exactly how much it will help.

However, since this particular DIY Hand Sanitizer recipe does not distribute the essential oils evenly throughout the hand sanitizer (floats on top, remember?), then you can’t depend on the essential oils to have a consistent anti-microbial effect at all.

FINAL VERDICT: Bad recipe!! Don’t make it, don’t share it, and certainly don’t use it on your family.

Hand Sanitizer Recipe 2:

This is also not my original hand sanitizer recipe. But it’s very easy to find online on multiple large websites, and I’ve heard that some TV News organizations have been recommending it since store-bought hand sanitizer is so difficult to find right now due to COVID-19.

Now let’s get to the ingredient analysis:

  • 2/3 cup of 99% Rubbing Alcohol
  • 1/3 cup Aloe Vera Gel
  • 8-10 drops essential oil (optional)

So…does this hand sanitizer recipe need a preservative?

Even though “water” is not listed as a separate ingredient, this is a case where there is a bit of “hidden” water inside the ingredients.

The Rubbing Alcohol contains 1% water. The Aloe Vera Gel is also a water based product, although it’s not as obvious exactly how much. Luckily, it doesn’t really matter how much water is in the Aloe, so long as we realize that there’s some there.

Next…does this hand sanitizer recipe have a preservative?

Yup, it sure does! Rubbing alcohol counts as alcohol, and alcohol is definitely a preservative.

Finally…does it contain enough preservative?

Let’s calculate the percentage of alcohol that’s left in the final product:

  1. First, calculate the total volume of alcohol are in the recipe: 2/3cup * 99% (for the Rubbing Alcohol) = 0.66 cups alcohol
  2. Next, calculate how much liquid is in the entire recipe = 1 cup
  3. Divide the amount of alcohol by the total amount of liquid: 0.66cup / 1cup = 0.66 = 66% Final Alcohol Content

Yay! 66% is more than our “magic number” of 25%, so it will totally work as a preservative for this DIY hand sanitizer.

Will this homemade hand sanitizer be effective?

Yes it will! Our “magic number” for effectiveness is 60%, so 66% is definitely high enough to combat the bad germs we’re trying to destroy.

But…(and this is a BIG but…)

You need to make sure that you are using 99% Rubbing Alcohol. By the way, do you even know where to find 99% Rubbing Alcohol? Because most rubbing alcohol that I see in my grocery stores (and that I have in my bathroom closet…) are only 70% Rubbing Alcohol.

But you can’t substitute with 70% rubbing alcohol, because then the Final Alcohol Content drops down to 47%. And this recipe will no longer be effective as a hand sanitizer. It will still be safely preserved (because alcohol content is still greater than 25%), but it’s no longer high enough to destroy most germs. But if you don’t realize this, then you will think that your hands are clean and sanitized after each use…when they’re actually not.

In addition to the alcohol, there is some research that suggests aloe vera itself may have anti-microbial properties. In any case, it should help combat the skin dryness that alcohol can cause to your skin.

Are the essential oils being used safely and effectively in this hand sanitizer recipe?

This answer is a little trickier, because most recipes either don’t give explicit instructions for the essential oils…or suggest adding them last.

In order to properly solubilize them, you will want to add them to the Rubbing Alcohol first. Since the alcohol content at that point is higher than 95%, then the essential oils should “dissolve” evenly into your solution. Then you can safely add the aloe vera gel without the essential oils floating to the top. This eliminates the need to shake your hand sanitizer before each use, too!

Next, you’ll want to calculate the essential oil dilution rate. In this case it’s pretty low…only about 0.1%. That’s definitely in the safe range for topical essential oil use! Whether it will contribute to the anti-microbial properties is up for debate, and will also depend on which essential oils you choose.

FINAL VERDICT: This recipe meets the safety and effectiveness criteria as long as you use the exact ingredients specified without substituting a rubbing alcohol with lower alcohol content. And the essential oils can be safely incorporated as well.

You can’t see germs…even when they’re there

You might wonder how there can be sooo many “bad” DIY hand sanitizer recipes (or other DIY skincare and cleaning recipes, for that matter) being passed around online.

Part of the problem is that you can’t always SEE bacteria or fungi growing in your products, even when there are many millions of them floating around. They’re tiny. By the time they multiply to the point that you can see them, they’ve been there for a loooong time.

Now the good news is that the vast majority of bacteria are not dangerous enough to cause serious illness to most people. That’s really why so many people can “get away with” making homemade products that don’t contain enough (or any) preservatives.

But even if the bacteria growing in your preservative-free product is unlikely to make you sick…do you seriously want to spray it on your hands when you’re trying to disinfect them?

Ewwww…..

And that’s not even considering people who are immunocompromised and might be susceptible to getting sick even from bacteria that are normally harmless to a healthy immune system.

Let’s just all agree that it’s safer to make DIY Hand Sanitizer that doesn’t grow bacteria, ‘kay?

So PLEASE…analyze the DIY recipes you find online!

There is sooo much misinformation online when it comes to DIY recipes. And for this Mama who loves things to be #ObsessivelyResearched, that’s a huge pet peeve of mine.

Because DIY projects can be both fun AND useful! But when people make them, and then they don’t work (or are flat-out unsafe)…well, it kind of ruins it for everyone.

Maybe you love learning about this stuff, but don’t necessarily have the time (or the desire) to make it yourself. That’s okay! My Pit Spray was created off of the same principles as Hand Sanitizers are. After all, odor-causing bacteria in the pits aren’t any different than bacteria on your hands! So an “off-label” use of Nicole’s Perfect Pit Spray can be hand sanitizer and surface sanitizer.

Leave a Comment: Which DIY recipe would you like me to analyze next?

(Please spread the word on social media! Thank you!)

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