DIY Hand Sanitizers: What Could Go Wrong?

by | Mar 11, 2020 | Safety

There is an alarming trend which seems to be an explosion of bad DIY hand sanitizer formulas circulating around the web that come with potential liability. No matter what the reasons are behind this, making your own is a bad idea as hand sanitizers are not a DIY product, and we need to go over how it can all go wrong.


Alcohol Based Sanitizers

One of the first issues is that people are trying to make their own formula based on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendation that hand sanitizers need to contain at least 60% alcohol. Kayla Fioravanti, cosmetic formulator and aromatherapist, wrote a very good article titled The Dirty Truth About DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipes explaining why the general alcohol and aloe based formulas that are going around should not be followed. If you have not already read it, please check it out for more information not covered here.

Also, because of the widespread misinformation on this subject, it needs to be stressed again that when it is stated that hand sanitizers need to contain at least 60% alcohol, this does not mean that you can just add some 60% or 70% alcohol or so to a product and call it a day. It means that the whole finished product itself needs to be at least 60% total alcohol.

There have also been recommendations going around to use vodka. It is important to note that proof is not the same as alcohol percentage by volume. Tito’s, a brand named in some recipes, responded with a tweet of an image that included…

Per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ‘washing hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of germs in most situations. If soap and water are not readily available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. You can tell if sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol by looking at the product label.’

Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40 percent alcohol and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC.


Essential Oils and Water

There are also recipes suggesting to just add some essential oils to water or some other water based ingredient. It needs to be known that essential oils and water do not make a hand sanitizer or any properly formulated DIY product for that matter. Essential oils are hydrophobic and do not mix with water. All you end up with is neat (undiluted) essential oil and water that is going to rapidly grow microbes. This is in no way safe for topical use in either case. Nor does it make for a uniform and effective product. For more information on this subject there is a video linked in Kayla’s article. There is also a very informative article put out by the Tisserand Institute titled Effective Use of Alcohol for Aromatic Blending about making water based DIY products (not hand sanitizers) for home use only.


Essential Oil Based Sanitizers

Essential oils have many wonderful in-home uses, but there are just some things that should not be attempted outside of a professional setting.  In this case, a popular belief is that you can mix up a DIY hand sanitizer that is as good, or better, than a commercially available one. However, that is not as simple as it may seem.

One problem with that is, out of all of the articles and videos I saw, almost every single one of them showed (or linked to) an essential oil brand that has been tested and shown to be fake or adulterated. These types of oils are not going to produce the same results that have been supported by the research of pure essential oils.

Now let’s talk about the research…

There are those that are currently arguing that research supports the use of essential oils in a hand sanitizer recipe, but what does the research really show?

Essential oils have shown to be antimicrobial, but that is not the whole story.

A quick Google search suggests that there are at least one TRILLION species of microbes on the planet. Microbes by definition include bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Much of the available research tests for the Minimum Inhibitory Concentration (MIC) of a specific essential oil against specific microbes. The MIC, is the lowest concentration of an antimicrobial that inhibits the growth of a given microbe. The research provides clear evidence that each essential oil has different MIC values for each different microbe.

What that means is just because an oil is considered antimicrobial, that does not mean that it has the same effect on bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. alike. There are certain oils that are known to have good antibacterial qualities, but not so much antiviral. In turn, just because an oil is known for its antifungal properties, does not mean it is just as effective on bacteria or viruses. Here is the real kicker… Just because an oil is known for its antibacterial action, does not mean it is broad spectrum and equally effective against all bacteria.

Also, while many studies have been performed, they are usually on just a few oils and/or microbes at a time. There just has not been enough research to cover anywhere close to that estimated one trillion species. Not to mention the fact that in regards to recent events, if you do a search on for essential oils and coronavirus there are two results. A search including COVID-19 results in zero. (Updating to add that as of July 2022, search results went from 2 and 0, to 64 and 84 respectively.)

Another point to consider is an essential oil’s chemical constituents vary by batch due to several factors including: where the plants are grown, seasonal weather changes, distillation procedures, etc.

Even taking what we do know about oils that have documented MIC values in in vitro studies, that does not translate the same way for in vivo use. While research provides evidence that an oil may have, for instance, a MIC value of 0.25 – 0.50% for a certain microbe, that value was usually achieved by sealing the oil in a titre plate or petri dish for long periods of time for an incubation period. In this case, research shows that taking the same microbe and oil into account, the percentages required for topical use in a wash or cream are much higher at 5-10%. Due to their nature, oils act very differently on human skin and in the short amount of time they would need to be effective as a wash or hand sanitizer, than they do in a sealed environment in a lab apparatus for extended periods.

I am not disputing that essential oils have excellent potential. However, there is still so much we do not know and there is no way it could be guaranteed that any oil or blend of oils, could have the same effectiveness as a commercial hand sanitizer without proper professional testing of the finished product.


Other Considerations

Even if you happen to luck up and put together something that would work, there would still be other things to consider.

Based on everything above, it seems possible that in order to make an effective hand sanitizing product just using essential oils as the active ingredient, may require much higher percentages than already mentioned. These higher percentages, especially depending on the oils used, can cause phototoxicity reactions, skin irritation, sensitization issues, and even chemical burns. Higher percentages in a product of this type can also be a problem as one of the first things many people learn about when starting aromatherapy (sometimes the hard way) is to wash your hands as soon as you finish handling or applying oils. In many cases the last thing anyone wants to do is, for example, touch their eyes or go to the restroom with oils still on their hands and in this case, you cannot wash them off.

Also, proper product formulation comes back into play. If everything used in the formula does not blend together properly or separates, you end up with a product that is not uniform throughout therefore not safe and effective.

Another thing to consider is if any of the ingredients used in the product are contaminated in any way, there can be far worse consequences than just being ineffective. For instance, there was the case in which a bloodstream infection outbreak was reported due to contaminated water being used to dilute a skin antiseptic in a hospital.

Lastly, some words of advice. Please do not even think about trying to sell something like this to others. Any product of this nature has to be professionally formulated and tested for safety, efficacy, stability, shelf life, and any microbial issues. Without this, you can be setting yourself up for a huge liability. Also, as per FDA regulations, it is considered a drug and they are already actively issuing warnings in regards to Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) products.


In Conclusion

All that this type of untested product does is cause a false sense of security. Not to mention the liability that comes with something this serious. Considering everything provided here, would you stake the health and wellbeing of you, your family, and potentially others on this type of product? Are you also willing to chance being arrested or lose everything you have in a potential lawsuit due to an improperly formulated and untested product, or for spreading bad information?

I personally do not have any of the required information to prove that any of these DIY hand sanitizer recipes are safe and effective for me, my loved ones, or yours.


Additional Resources

The Dirty Truth About DIY Hand Sanitizer Recipes

Solubility of essential oils in liquids-myths and truths

Essential Oils and Coronaviruses

Effective Use of Alcohol for Aromatic Blending

Plant Alkemie Institute of Holistic Botanical Studies Facebook Post

Essential Oils and Coronavirus Facebook Post

Aromatherapy, Cosmetic Regulations, and Your DIYs

Neos Skin Care Facebook Post

Unicorn Chemist Facebook Post

Handwashing: Clean Hands Save Lives

Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings



Sheppard-Hanger, S. (1995). The Aromatherapy Practitioner Correspondence Course. Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy

Coronavirus outbreak prompts Tito’s Vodka to remind customers that vodka isn’t hand sanitizer

Types Of Microorganisms

Essential Oils to Prevent the Spread of Flu

Orchard, Ane & Sandasi, Maxleene & Kamatou, Guy Paulin & Viljoen, Alvaro & Van vuuren, Sandy. (2016). The in vitro Antimicrobial Activity and Chemometric Modelling of 59 Commercial Essential Oils against Pathogens of Dermatological Relevance. Chemistry & Biodiversity. 14. 10.1002/cbdv.201600218.

Carson, Christine & Riley, Thomas & Hammer, Katherine. (2005). Tea tree oil: a potential alternative for the management ofmethicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Healthcare Infection. 10. 10.1071/HI05032.

Brady, Aaron & Loughlin, Ryan & Gilpin, D. & Kearney, Patricia & Tunney, Michael. (2006). In vitro activity of tea-tree oil against clinical skin isolates of meticillin-resistant and -sensitive Staphylococcus aureus and coagulase-negative staphylococci growing planktonically and as biofilms. Journal of medical microbiology. 55. 1375-80. 10.1099/jmm.0.46558-0.

Orchard A, Kamatou G, Viljoen AM, Patel N, Mawela P, van Vuuren SF. (2019). The Influence of Carrier Oils on the Antimicrobial Activity and Cytotoxicity of Essential Oils. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2019;2019 6981305. doi:10.1155/2019/6981305. PMID: 30733812; PMCID: PMC6348851.

Carson, C. F., Hammer, K. A., & Riley, T. V. (2006). Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: a review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clinical microbiology reviews, 19(1), 50–62.

Sue C. Chao, D. Gary Young & Craig J. Oberg (2000) Screening for Inhibitory Activity of Essential Oils on Selected Bacteria, Fungi and Viruses, Journal of Essential Oil Research, 12:5, 639-649, DOI: 10.1080/10412905.2000.9712177

Swamy, Mallappa & Akhtar, Mohd Sayeed & Sinniah, Uma Rani. (2016). Antimicrobial Properties of Plant Essential Oils against Human Pathogens and Their Mode of Action: An Updated Review. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016. 10.1155/2016/3012462.

Ané Orchard Alvaro Viljoen Sandy van Vuuren. (2018). Wound Pathogens: Investigating Antimicrobial Activity of Commercial Essential Oil Combinations Against Reference Strains. Chem Biodivers. 2018 Dec;15(12):e1800405. doi: 10.1002/cbdv.201800405. Epub 2018 Dec 17.

Orchard, A., & van Vuuren, S. (2017). Commercial Essential Oils as Potential Antimicrobials to Treat Skin Diseases. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2017, 4517971.

Q&A: Tea tree oil & hospital superbugs

Outbreak of Burkholderia Cepacia Bacteremia Traced to Contaminated Hospital Water Used for Dilution of an Alcohol Skin Antiseptic

Weber, D. J., Rutala, W. A., & Sickbert-Bennett, E. E. (2007). Outbreaks associated with contaminated antiseptics and disinfectants. Antimicrobial agents and chemotherapy, 51(12), 4217–4224.

Fraudulent Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Products

Safety and Effectiveness of Consumer Antiseptic Rubs; Topical Antimicrobial Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use

New Jersey 7-Eleven owner arrested after homemade sanitizer burns 4 children




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DISCLAIMER: The information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and is for educational and informational purposes only. When incorporating any complementary alternative therapy into your health care regimen, always seek the advice of your medical doctor or qualified healthcare provider, and watch for any possible interactions or side effects. Statements made on this site have not been evaluated by the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). 


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