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All You Need to Know About Hand Sanitizers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jun 15, 2020 12:19 PM 6 min read

In a previous article,  we talked about the economy of face masks. In this piece, we’ll do a similar exploration of another must-have commodity during these pandemic-struck times: the hand sanitizer.

The first time then-Senator Barack Obama met then-President George Bush in 2005, the latter pushed a bottle of hand sanitizer towards Obama after they shook hands. 

“Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds!” Bush apparently said.

Hand sanitizers are ubiquitous today. Even before the coronavirus, these products were renowned for their antimicrobial prowess and used by anyone who could lay their hands on them (albeit, not as regularly and rigorously as today).

And since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were among the first products to go missing from market shelves as many people hoarded them and governments scrambled to shore up production to meet the soaring demand.

A bar sign in Hong Kong probably captured the sentiment perfectly: “Never in my whole life would I imagine my hand would consume more alcohol than my mouth!”

But sanitizers weren’t always the must-have safety product they are today. In fact, not only are they a relatively recent invention but the company that perfected them as a mass-market consumer good in the first place (Purell) lost money on the product for a decade before they became profitable.



Hand Sanitizers: A Brief Overview

Anatomy of a Hand Sanitizer

A hand sanitizer is a liquid, gel, spray or foam used to reduce the number of infectious agents on your hands. Alcohol is the primary component: most sanitizers contain 60% to 95% isopropyl or ethyl alcohol mixed with water and a thickening agent like glycol and glycerin, which provide the easy-to-apply gel texture. Add a few more ingredients to protect your hands from alcohol or to add a fragrance to the gel and you’ve got yourself a hand sanitizer.


How Hand Sanitizers Work

Important PSA here - hand sanitizers don’t work on all pathogens (if you see a bottle that claims to kill “99.9%” or “100%” germs, best to stay clear of it). But they do work on many of the major ones, including SARS-CoV-2, which is an “envelope virus”. This means the virus has an outer coat made up of proteins and lipids. The sanitizer’s alcohol cells embed themselves in the virus’s coat and dissolve it, thereby killing it. If it’s a bacteria, the sanitizer is attacking its cell membrane. By the way, the reason why recommended alcohol concentration is 60-95% and not 100% is because you need some amount of water to help the alcohol penetrate the microbe.


How to Use Hand Sanitizers

This is fairly well-known and simple, but it never hurts to read life-saving advice more than once!

  1. Apply the alcohol-based hand sanitizer on the palm of one hand - the exact quantity required should be mentioned on the product label and depends on the alcohol concentration.
  2. Rub your hands together firmly, spread the sanitizer over all surfaces of your hands and fingers and continue doing so until your hands are dry.


How Not to Use Hand Sanitizers

Now, there are some things you need to be aware of regarding hand sanitizers:

  1. Don’t apply too little sanitizer, else it won’t kill enough germs.
  2. Don’t wipe your hands on any surface until they go dry.
  3. Don’t go near a flame or gas burner or any burning object during applying hand sanitizer - they can be flammable.
  4. Hand sanitizers have a lot of alcohol but that doesn’t mean you can drink them. (This might seem obvious, but still needs reiteration because of past occurrences.)
  5. Unlike face masks, it’s not advisable to make your own hand sanitizer at home. The ratio between ingredients is a crucial one to maintain, so even if you have all the stuff needed to make sanitizers, you might end up making something that kills viruses but harms your skin or safeguards your skin but doesn’t harm viruses.

A Word of Caution: The main point to remember is that while hand sanitizers work, washing your hands with soap and water is far more effective. The latter kills more germs more thoroughly. Moreover, if your hands are covered in grease or dirt, sanitizers won’t help you get them clean; only thorough hand-washing will. 

 Sanitizers are more effective in environments like hospitals where doctors and nurses may not need frequent hand-washing or be more concerned about microbes rather than large specks of dirt.

(By the way, if you’re interested in learning why soaps are effective against COVID-19 and most viruses, here’s a delightfully long Twitter thread for you.)


A Brief History of Hand Sanitizers

For most of history, the goal of handwashing was to remove visible dirt and grime from your hands. The idea that fatal diseases can originate from microscopic organisms - “the germ theory of disease” - would only become established fact in the late 19th century. Around the same time, a Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis posited that a common way germs spread is through unwashed hands. Thus was born the regimen of handwashing (at least in its modern avatar).

Alcohol’s history as an antiseptic can be traced back centuries. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, however, are a recent advent, being invented only in the late 20th century. Sales were muted in the initial years. They only went - forgive the pun - “viral” in 2002 when the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) revised its guidelines to recommend the usage of these products when soap and water were unavailable. 

“Alcohol-based hand rubs take less time to use than traditional hand washing,” the CDC said in 2002. “In an eight-hour shift, an estimated one hour of an ICU nurse’s time will be saved by using an alcohol-based handrub.”

Then, in 2009 the World Health Organisation (WHO) followed suit and issued similar recommendations. The 2003 SARS epidemic and 2009 swine flu pandemic led to surges in sanitizer sales as panicked consumers took to hoarding these items to repel germs (and we;re seeing the same thing happening in 2020).


The Economics of Hand Sanitizers

The hand sanitizer market could top $7.12bn by 2027 (it was $2.7bn in 2019), with projections altered steeply upwards in the wake of the ongoing pandemic and increasing focus on hand hygiene.

The global hand sanitizer supply chain is not as diverse as, say, the iPhone’s or as China-centric as face masks.The product began its journey as a consumer good in the US quite recently, and its main components - alcohol (usually ethanol), a thickening agent to give it a gel-like texture, a plastic bottle and a pump top - can be manufactured domestically if needed. 


Hand Sanitizers and COVID-19’s Supply Chain Disruptions

At the onset of the pandemic, the entire sanitizer-manufacturing process was still fairly globalised, and COVID-19’s supply chain disruptions and the cosmic surge in demand led to an acute shortage of sanitizers in the market.

Where There’s a Will, There’s A Way: But countries have managed to swiftly rebound. New Zealand, for example, was a net importer of sanitizers before the pandemic. Since then, it has tapped its dairy industry for ethanol supply, so 70% of the product can already be assembled without fear of international supply chain worries. The thickening agent and plastic bottles are probably still sourced from abroad, though, because that could be more economical. 

The emergency de-globalisation paid off - by April, New Zealand was manufacturing 1m liters of sanitizer per month, 10 times the usual amount. The former net importer is now looking to become a net exporter of the product.

Way #2: There are other ways countries have confronted the pandemic’s supply disruptions. One is via specifical bilateral arrangements. Taiwan, for example, had the foresight to ramp up mask production back in January. Australia, meanwhile, had excess reserves of ethanol. The two countries inked a deal in March to swap fabric for 3m face masks for ethanol for 4m bottles of hand sanitizer. Win-win!

Way #3: Another route countries have taken is diversifying production avenues - as we have seen in face masks and ventilators. In the UK, breweries have been turned into sanitizer-production units, turning their whiskey and gin into COVID-killing gels. In India, shampoo companies and alcohol retailers joined the fray. Pernod Ricard is shelling out thousands of gallons of sanitizers from its US facilities. LVMH is doing the same at its Dior and Givenchy perfume plants. After all, we’re all in this together.


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