What's the best way to keep your hands clean when you can't wash them? Hand sanitizer. In the wake of COVID-19, these simple antiseptics are all the rage... and out of stock. Our modern world is full of surfaces that can harbor pathogens ~ viruses can live on porous surfaces like paper and fabric for 8 to 12 hours, and on nonporous surfaces such as plastic and metal for 48 hours or more. While those germs don't permeate through your hands, they are transmitted into our bodies when we touch our eyes, nose or mouth. And although washing with good soap and water for 20 seconds is always the best way to get our hands clean, hand sanitizer can definitely be a useful aid when we're on the go. 

With that said, remember that it is extra crucial to actually wash your hands as often as possible, but especially (according to the CDC) before and after prepping food, eating, treating a cut or wound, caring for someone who is ill, and after coming into contact with animals (or their food or waste), using the bathroom (or changing a diaper), coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy, find a sink and wash away! I also recommend keeping a travel-size bottle of castile soap in your bag so that you never have to deal with public bathroom soap. 

When considering the efficacy of hand sanitizer, an important perspective to keep in mind is that they are not all created equal. In 2019, the FDA banned 28 chemicals commonly used in hand sanitizers sold in the United States, such as triclosan and benzethonium chloride. Several of these banned compounds are pervasively antimicrobial, and have been found to seep into our skin, kill off beneficial bacteria, and possibly disrupt our endocrine system (aka hormones). Using these types of broad spectrum antibiotics when they aren't totally necessary can also decrease the effectiveness of prescribed antibiotics when we have an actual infection. Products with some of these chemicals are still on the market, so whether you're purchasing a new hand sanitizer or have an old bottle lying around, it might be worth checking to see if any of the ingredients are on this list of chemicals banned by the FDA. Please note that this forbidden list includes Tea Tree oil ~ and while there is a growing body of evidence to support Tea Tree's antimicrobial effects, as well as it's general safety (aside from rare allergic reactions), I am under the assumption that it is on this list because the oil itself is not strong enough to sufficiently kill germs on its own. Which brings me to the second consideration for hand sanitizer...

Not all hand sanitizers are capable of getting the job done. According to the CDC and studies that support its claims, hand sanitizers need to consist of at least 60% alcohol to be effective. Most of the alcohol we drink is 40% by volume or less (aka 80 proof or less) so regardless of how much vodka you pour on your hands, it might not be enough to kill germs. Unless you're stocked up on Everclear or 151, chances are everything in your liquor cabinet is not going to do the trick as far as germ killing goes. Along the same thread, do not try to use hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, essential oil blends - or anything else for that matter - as a hand sanitizer base. While adding 3% hydrogen peroxide can help preserve your DIY antiseptic, it will not suffice to kill pathogens. 


Strong alcohols have proven their efficacy as antiseptics, and have been used to destroy germs on the hands since 1888. Alcohol kills germs by denaturing (breaking down) and coagulating (clumping together) microorganism proteins, causing their cell walls to lyse (deteriorate) and cellular metabolism (cell activity) to be disrupted. The two most common types used to sanitize, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol), are widely available under the common name of rubbing alcohol, which ranges from 68% all the way up to 99% alcohol.

When creating your hand sanitizer, you can use either type of rubbing alcohol. Ethanol has been found to be most lethal to viruses, whereas isopropanol appears to be more bactericidal (bacteria-killing). I'd advise using whichever one you have in your medicine cabinet to save yourself a trip to the store, as both work well. Interestingly enough, microbial proteins are less likely to denature without the presence of water, so alcohol concentrations over 95% are inadvisable; the most effective concentrations are 60% to 85% ethanol or 60% to 80% isopropanol


Once you have your active ingredient as the base, the next step is figuring out what to add to dilute the alcohol so the formula is less harsh on your skin. Keep in mind that if you are working with 70% rubbing alcohol, you can use it in its undiluted form as an effective hand sanitizer (we do apply it directly to our open wounds, after all). Many recipes call for aloe vera ~ if you have access to distilled aloe, this is certainly ideal, but I wouldn't go hunting for it if you don't. Most of the widely available aloe vera gels contain a range of thickeners and preservatives that ultimately aren't good for your skin and make for a thicker product that won't spray. 

What can you use instead of aloe? If you have any hydrosols ~ aka distillate waters ~ like rose or lavender already available to you, these will work great. Virtually any type of hydrosol can be used, as these are simply the distilled water byproduct of essential oil production (with similar properties and aromas to their essential oil counterparts, but exponentially more mild in every way and generally safe to apply directly to the skin). If you don't have any hydrosols on hand, use either distilled water or - in a pinch - boil some water and let it cool before using.

If you are using water instead of aloe, just remember that the alcohol base will be especially drying to the skin. I highly recommend checking out my stellar selection of nourishing botanical moisturizers to soothe and hydrate your hands in between sprays of sanitizer!


The next potential addition to your hand sanitizer is essential oils. If you don't already have essential oils in your home, don't sweat it. But if you happen to have some in your possession, chances are that they're antimicrobial. Plants are masters of fending off viruses, bacteria and fungi for their own survival, and essential oils generally contain these antimicrobial substances due to their volatile chemical structure. While we don't yet fully understand all the mechanisms of action that plant compounds have on human pathogens, we have seen in lab studies that they can kill or inhibit the growth and spread of specific microorganisms

Because plant antimicrobials generally have a targeted action on specific viral or bacterial strains or families, not all antiviral essential oils will kill all viruses (and the same goes for bacteria and fungi). Since we don't yet have any research on essential oils for COVID-19, I would suggest using oils that have demonstrated action against similar types of infections. The following list contains only essential oils with relevant and substantiated antimicrobial activity. Click on each plant name below to view the published papers on the topic from the NIH. 

Sage / Salvia officinalis
Lemonbalm / Melissa officinalis
Eucalyptus / Eucalyptus species 
Patchouli / Pogostemon cablin
Thyme / Thymus vulgaris
• Cinnamon* / Cinnamomum cassia/verum
• Lavender / Lavandula officinalis
• Clove* / Syzigium aromaticum

The *starred essential oils above - Cinnamon & Clove - are extremely harsh on the skin so you should only add 2-3 drops maximum per ounce of hand sanitizer. 

Other common essential oils that could be potentially beneficial include citrus (lemon, orange, grapefruit),  peppermint, rosemary, oregano and tea tree. 


The following recipe variations are for hand sanitizers that are at least 60% alcohol by volume, as recommended by the CDC. As per the note above, if your rubbing alcohol is 70% strength, you can use it straight from the bottle for an effective hand sanitizer. 

– A clean 2 oz (60ml) bottle or 2 x 1 oz (30ml) bottles ideally with a spray atomizer or other dispensing cap 
– A small (1 cup) measuring cup 
– Measuring spoons: 1/2 teaspoon, teaspoon (tsp), tablespoon (tbs)

– Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl or ethyl alcohol) either 70% strength for Method A or 91% strength for Method B
– Aqueous base: aloe or another type of plant hydrosol, distilled water OR water that has been boiled and then cooled
– 20 drops essential oil (optional): I recommend 3 to 6 different oils at the most, with higher ratios of oils that have notable antiviral activity 
– 40 drops (1/3 tsp) hydrogen peroxide (optional to preserve the blend) 

1. Measure 3 tablespoons + 1.5 teaspoons of 70% rubbing alcohol and add to the measuring cup
2. Measure out 1.5 teaspoons of your aqueous base and add to the alcohol; include within this measurement up to 20 drops of essential oils and 40 drops of hydrogen peroxide if you choose to use either
3. Carefully pour your mixture into the bottle and screw the cap on tightly ~ because essential oils are not miscible in water, shake well before each use
4. Add a label with the ingredients in your blend & the date you made it!  

You can double this recipe for a 4 oz bottle, halve for a 1 oz bottle etc. To make 1 cup of this blend, you'll need 4x the recipe or:
– 3/4 cup + 2 tbs 70% alcohol, 2 tbs aqueous base (including up to 2 tsp hydrogen peroxide & 1 tsp essential oil).

1. Measure 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons of 91% rubbing alcohol and add to the measuring cup
2. Measure out 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon of your aqueous base and add to the alcohol; include within this measurement up to 20 drops of essential oils and 40 drops of hydrogen peroxide if you choose to use either
3. Carefully pour your mixture into the bottle and screw the cap on tightly ~ because essential oils are not miscible in water, shake well before each use
4. Add a label with the ingredients in your blend & the date you made it!  

To make 1 cup of this blend, you'll need 4x the recipe or:
– 2/3 cup 91% alcohol, 1/3 cup aqueous base (including up to 
2 tsp hydrogen peroxide & 1 tsp essential oil).


To make the most of your hand sanitizer, apply liberally to the palms and rub all over the front and back of both hands until they are dry; it is advisable to wait 30 seconds before touching anything to ensure effectiveness. Studies have suggested that you need to spray 2.4 to 3 ml of sanitizer on your hands for it to work, which translates to roughly a half teaspoon ~ so spray away and stay well out there! 

Questions? Comments? Something I missed? Feel free to email me at Deanna@indigoelixirs.com

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