Can’t I just use up some old colognes or perfumes as hand sanitizer? My elderly father asked me this recently on our nightly Whatsapp chat. We were discussing the locust-like swoop of panic buying that had swept all hand sanitizers off the shelves in the UK.
This was a few weeks ago, even before the UK started getting serious about taking measures to prepare for and reduce the spread of the Coronavirus. My mum didn’t wear fragrance in her later years as had severe allergic reactions to it, but I guessed both she and Dad had some old bottles lurking in bedroom drawers still and this prompted his query.
As I pen this, Europe is the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are here reading a blog on perfume, then I bet you have considered deploying that long-forgotten and least liked perfume as hand sanitizer. And, perhaps your newer ones too. For perfume has the most important ingredient – alcohol – in high enough percentages to be effective in killing many types of viruses, as well as many bacteria and fungi.
Before you do grab your perfumes, I’ve some words of caution in the FAQs below. I hope my post here goes some way to helping you know what you to look for in a shop-bought product and why perfume isn’t an automatic replacement for an effective alcohol-based hand sanitizer .
What is hand sanitizer?
A hand sanitizer is a liquid or gel product for killing and reducing infectious agents – bacteria, viruses, funghi and spores – on hands. They are used primarily in healthcare settings but have been popular consumer products for some years in line with our growing awareness of hygiene and health practices at home, work and on holiday.
Now, in 2020, according to business monitoring company Ibis, we’re seeing an increase of 16.6% in hand sanitizer production due to demand driven by the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. As I mention further on, not all hand sanitizers are equal when it comes to fighting viruses and some pretty useless ones are flying off the shelves now at super inflated prices!
What are hand sanitizers made of?
Hand sanitizers are usually based predominantly on alcohol but can contain water and water-containing ingredients as well. They may also include components such as aloe vera gel, glycerine, and natural oils such as fractionated coconut oil, synthesized oils and fragrance. Aloe vera, glycerine and coconut oil aid not only with thickening the sanitizer for ease of use, but also act as humectants and moisturisers.
Vitamin E (tocopherol) to reduce oxidisation and preservatives are usually added even if the product is a high percentage alcohol and therefore self preserving. Colorants, foaming and soaping agents and solubilizers (to mix oil and water ingredients) are often added too.
What to look for in buying a hand sanitizer
To be effective in aiding the killing of some viruses, hand sanitizers need to have a very high percentage of alcohol. Check the ingredients’ (INCI) list of the package or container and look for Alcohol (denat), ethanol, ethyl ethanol, n-propyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol either alone or in combination as the very first ingredient(s) listed. If alcohol is part way down the INCI list, then ask why. Is it mostly made up of water, water-containing or other fillers typical in regular cosmetics like liquid soaps, shower gels and so on?
If so, then it is unlikely that the hand sanitizer is going to be effective for the job you need of sanitizing your hands while on the go, out and about, in situations where it is impractical to wash your hands or when you need to use alcohol sanitizers such as entering healthcare facilities.
To be truly effective, hand sanitizers need to be a minimum of 60% alcohol. The healthcare sector would be looking to use sanitizers with 70 – 95% alcohol content. Any less than 60% alcohol, and the sanitizer’s alcohol might evaporate before it has had time to kill infectious agents.
Alcohol has a drying effect on skin and can cause topical dermatitis especially if the sanitizer is used frequently. If this is a concern, then opt for gel-based ones with added emollients.
Should we hand sanitize or hand wash?
Hand sanitizers are recommended when you need to instantly sanitize your hands to protect yourself from picking up or passing on viruses (and bacteria of course) and when your hands are not soiled with visible particles. They are best used when out and about and in a pump-action or sprayable form which ideally allows you to dispense the sanitizer easily. Remember to sanitize the exterior of the dispenser frequently too.
The US Centre for Disease Control has a useful advice sheet on why, when and how to wash your hands with soap and water, and also the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. If you have soap and water, use it for hands that are soiled. We are drilled as kids to hand wash before meals and after using the bathroom, but as adults? I bet some are woefully negligent in routine hand washing. If you have no visible soiling, you can still wash hands and/or, and if you are out and about, then use hand sanitizer.
Do not get complacent when using hand sanitizer as it won’t kill all germs, nor stop all viruses. We need to essentially use both methods where appropriate and know that regular hand washing/sanitizing is a basic hygiene routine that can go a long way to preventing viruses and germs spreading.
Another good source of instruction on hand washing and sanitizing is the WHO’s advice brochure for healthcare workers. Great Ormond Street Hospital in the UK has a useful demo video on how to wash your hands properly.
Can you use spirits like Vodka as a hand sanitizer?
You can, as a last resort if that is all you have around but as you can see, their alcohol percentage falls short of the required percentage for effective hand sanitizing. Certainly spirits have been in use from the middle ages well into the 1800s in medicine until science caught up and provided evidence for their effect and offered better alternatives.
Can you use Perfume as hand sanitizer?
So, to our first and final query which has the simple answer – yes; but with some caveats.
Perfumes range generally between 70 – 97% alcohol, depending on their fragrance strength so in theory, you can see how some might think they can be automatically used as replacements for hand sanitizer – cost aside.
Eau de Cologne is around 1-3% fragrance so seems an ideal contender to replace a retail-bought hand sanitizer. I would urge caution though in using any perfume as hand sanitizer for the simple reason that it is not placed on the market for that purpose and is tested as a fragrance cosmetic not as a type of body cleansing or hygiene product.
Fragrance oils are not intended to be used in leave-on products in large quantities and certain oils and aromachemicals are restricted in their use in perfumes. If used as a hand sanitizer, perfume will be rubbed into your hands in larger amounts on a large portion of skin, rather than dabbed or sprayed on pulse points (a term also used to indicate nape of neck) and left to evaporate.
The most obvious issue with using perfume as a hand sanitizer is its scent. Ann Prosser of Cosmetic Safety Assessment firm Oxford Biosciences had this to say about it: “It would be fine to use old perfumes as hand sanitisers, as with the high percentage of alcohol they would work. But the smell on your hands would be overpowering! I certainly wouldn’t apply perfume more that twice a day and then I’m always fully clothed so most of it goes onto fabric rather than skin”.
The other issue Oxford Biosciences raised was that of allergens. Over liberal use of perfume on hands may nudge up your exposure to fragrance allergens. As a result, you may experience skin irritation or allergic reactions, or the oils may causing photo-sensitisation (a term used when an oil induces rapid tanning of the skin resulting in reddening or permanent hyperpigmentation – skin cell damage).
Perfumes undergo safety testing and are issued with a Cosmetics Portal Safety Report (EU) in order to be placed on the market in the EU. Other jurisdictions around the world have similar legal requirements on consumer cosmetics. If you go ahead and use perfume as hand sanitizer and do have an adverse reaction, skin or other condition, the manufacturer would not be liable as you would be deemed to have used the product in a way that is not foreseen nor indicated by the name nor nature of the product.
You might also be interested in our post on Perfume Ingredients: how to read a perfume flacon label.
I must point out that the author of this post is not a qualified medical practitioner nor a cosmetic safety assessor. It is written solely as an opinion piece and not intended to replace advice given by qualified medical or other health professionals or bona fide professional sources. The author nor blog owner can not be held liable for any action taken based on the opinions above.
Photo by Imani Clovis on Unsplash