Should you use meth spirits to make your own hand sanitiser? Experts don’t advise it

Business Insider SA
A security guard sanitises people's hands during t
(Photo by Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)
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  • Following panic buying of hand sanitiser, some South Africans are making their own.
  • But the key ingredient - 70% isopropyl/rubbing alcohol - is also not always widely available.
  • Methylated spirits has been suggested as an alternative, but experts strongly advise against using it.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider's home page.

After massive panic buying of hand sanitiser across the country, coronavirus-fearing South Africans have started to make their own.

Recipes have been shared on various websites locally, and abroad.

But the key ingredient – 70% isopropyl/rubbing alcohol – may also not be as easy to get your hands on either.

In response, new recipes replacing rubbing alcohol with methylated spirits have been shared on WhatsApp.

Read | How to make your own hand sanitiser and cleaning wipes

Prof. Angela Dramowski, a specialist in paediatric infectious diseases at Stellenbosch University advises against it.

“I certainly would not recommended it. It would be very drying to the skin and likely cause skin damage after repeated use.”

Dramowski also would not advise anyone to use alcohol without addition of an emollient, for example glycerol.

A general practitioner told Business Insider that a big concern would be having bottles of toxic methylated spirits around the house, raising the risk of children accidentally consuming it.

If you don’t have running water, consider making a simple squeezy bottle with soap and water, Dramowski said.

Read | Instead of Savanna and Klipdrift, some local distilleries are now making hand sanitiser

She still believes it’s better to stick to soap and water than to use home-made recipes.

This view is also echoed by prof. Gert van Zyl of the division of medical virology at Stellenbosch University.

“Soap and water is likely the best.”

Read | Hand sanitiser is now available from SA online stores again – here’s how much you’ll pay

The novel coronavirus is transmitted via droplets from sneezing or coughing that can land on anything, from tables to laptops to credit cards. It can live on surfaces for hours a day. If people touch something a droplet has landed on and then touch their faces, they can get infected.

"The humble act of washing with soap and water, followed by drying with a clean towel is the gold standard," Elizabeth Scott, an expert in home and community hygiene and professor at Simmons University in the US, told Business Insider. "Hand washing with soap employs mechanical action that loosens bacteria and viruses from the skin, rinsing them into the drain."

The pathogen (or virus) itself is encased in a lipid envelope, or layer of fat. Soap helps destroy that layer of fat, making the virus less capable of infecting you.

Soap contains fat-like substances known as amphiphiles, which are similar to the lipids in the virus' envelope, Scott told Business Insider. These amphiphiles compete with the lipids in the virus envelope and deactivate the virus.

While bar and liquid soap are both equally effective, bar soap should not be used in public places, says Scott. Bar soaps are for home only, and shouldn't be used by people with skin infections.

Hand sanitisers with an alcohol content that is greater than 62% can also destroy these lipid membranes, according to Scott. But they are ineffective against non-enveloped viruses, like norovirus and rhinovirus, which are variations of the common cold. Plus they provide none of the virus-destroying friction that rubbing your hands together and rinsing provides.

According to Christopher Friese, a professor of nursing, health management and policy at the University of Michigan, hand sanitiser poses three challenges. There must be a high enough alcohol concentration to be effective, the entire surface of the hands and fingers must be covered, and skin irritation may occur. That's natural when rubbing something that is over 60% alcohol into your skin. 

Additional reporting by Shira Federa

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