As the coronavirus spreads in the U.S., Purell and other commercial hand sanitizers have sold out online and at pharmacies across the country in recent days. Now, even the raw materials for are in increasingly short supply, proving hard to find in New York City drugstores, supermarkets and elsewhere.
The run on ingredients such as aloe vera and rubbing alcohol comes as public health experts recommend that Americans use do-it-yourself methods to make up for nationwide shortages of antibacterial products. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises frequent hand-washing with either soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to guard against the virus.
"Our hands and fingertips carry the infection, so if we use hand sanitizer that will pretty much control the disease," Dr. Sanjay Maggirwar, a professor of microbiology at George Washington University, told CBS MoneyWatch.
It's a message Americans have seemingly taken to heart, with such products increasingly hard to come by. Some online merchants listed small bottles of commercially available hand sanitizer that usually sell for $10 for up to $600.
Isopropyl alcohol that's at least 60% alcohol by volume is about as effective as any hand sanitizer product when mixed with other ingredients, such as aloe vera for its soothing properties, and essential oils to mask the alcohol's smell, CBS News contributor Dr. David Agus said. He also quelled concerns that using pure aloe vera might dilute the mixture, resulting in a formula that contains less than the CDC's recommended 60% alcohol content.
"It's like mixing vodka with orange juice — it still gets you drunk," he said.
The problem? Both rubbing alcohol and aloe vera are also hard to find online and in physical stores. A 32-ounce bottle of isopropyl alcohol from Target's up & up brand was sold out Thursday on the discount retailer's website. Amazon said a bottle of its own brand's alcohol would be back in stock April 5. A few varieties of rubbing alcohol were still available for sale on Walmart's website at regular prices.
Whole Foods Market at busy Columbus Circle in Manhattan was sold out of both hand sanitizer and its raw components. Nearby Duane Reade and CVS pharmacies were also out of stock.
"We order it and it sells out — everyone is just attacking it," a worker at a local Duane Reade drugstore said of the surge in demand for rubbing alcohol. "We have nothing antibacterial left," the worker told an inquiring customer.
Some smaller vendors — like 57th Greenmarket in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood — were down to their last bottle of rubbing alcohol, while other chain pharmacies around the city were also sold out of the item and of aloe vera.
Ken Mantell, who owns Elm Drugs and Wellness, an organic grocer and traditional pharmacy in the Chelsea neighborhood, told CBS MoneyWatch that demand for hand sanitizer and similar products has spiked over the past three days as corona fears mount. A single 16-ounce bottle of rubbing alcohol remained on the shelf, while phone customers had bought out the store's supply of aloe vera. Purell, too, was sold out.
"This is all because of the coronavirus pandemic scare. We don't typically sell out in this manner. People are definitely in panic shopping mode and trying to stockpile as much as they can," Mantell said.
It's unusual for the drugstore to sell out of aloe vera, particularly in the wintertime. "We don't typically carry a lot because it's a seasonal product. Usually it's in high demand in the summer when people are out in the sun more. We keep a small stock on hand for when people come back from vacation — usually just about 12 pieces," Mandell said.
For consumers who do want to try their hand at making hand sanitizer, here's the recipe:
- 2/3 cup of rubbing alcohol (60% minimum alcohol content)
- 1/3 cup pure aloe vera
- 5-10 drops of essential oil (optional)
- Mixing bowl
- Two-ounce empty spray bottle or liquid soap container
- Masking tape and pen or marker for labeling the container (or adhesive labels)