Liad Nemeth’s family has been in the jewelry-making business for years, selling supplies to hobbyists and creating handmade jewelry for sale on Etsy. A few weeks ago, amidst the heart-shaped lockets and hamsa necklaces, a new item landed in her Etsy shop: hand sanitizer, sold in 1 ounce bottles for $3.99.
Nemeth’s son, Drew, had heard about hand sanitizer flying off the shelves in convenience stores amid the coronavirus pandemic. As a byproduct of their business, they already had a lot of little plastic bottles that looked similar to the ones used by major manufacturers. So he looked up what else he needed to make a homemade batch. “It ended up that we had 70 percent of the supplies on hand through the other business, so we were like, ‘Sure, let’s make some,’” he says.
As Covid-19 continues to spread in the US, hand sanitizer has become a staple of many Americans’ new hygiene-conscious routine. Soap and water remains the gold standard recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but in shared spaces and on the go, hand sanitizer offers a quick line of defense. It doubles as a symbol of our collective anxiety: For weeks, sanitizer has been sold out or exceedingly hard to find at stores across the country.
With big-name brands like Purell still struggling to meet demand, a different set of producers have stepped in to fill the gap. There are boutique labels like EO Products, a Bay Area-based company that quadrupled its production of hand sanitizer, The Wall Street Journal reports, and still can’t keep it in stock. In France, the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH converted its perfume factory to make hand sanitizer instead. Distilleries are distributing cleanser made with high-proof alcohol to meet CDC guidelines of 60 percent. New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state would make its own sanitizer using prison labor.
The supply has become so strangled that the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates antiseptic products in the US, has encouraged pharmacists and physicians to start making their own stash. On Friday, the agency issued a new guidance temporarily relaxing the requirements for manufacturing hand sanitizers while the country deals with the public health emergency.
That’s opened the door for new sellers on platforms like Etsy to introduce homemade batches. Etsy, known for things like novelty needlepoints, is not generally an emergency backstop for pandemic cleaning supplies. But more and more of its shops have started listing masks and hand sanitizers amid crafting materials and artisan goods.
In Florida, Robert Neidler sells soy candles and other aromatherapy products on both Etsy and Amazon. He already had a stockpile of high-grade isopropyl alcohol, the kind used to make hand sanitizer, because he uses it to clean out equipment for his candle production. “The opportunity showed itself, and so we did some reformulation and shifted the shop around,” he says. Now, hand sanitizer joins the other products in his Etsy shop; it comes in 2 ounce bottles for $9.99.
Neidler’s candle business hasn’t taken much of a hit; more people are at home and looking for a way to unwind at the end of an anxious day. But nothing has sold as quickly as the hand sanitizer. “We’re seeing about a 40 percent increase of our in-home product sales, so candles, wax melts, and aromatherapy stuff,” says Neidler, compared to last year. “But we’ve seen a 400 percent increase in sales on hand sanitizer” since it was first introduced to the shop.
Making hand sanitizer at home isn’t terribly complicated. When manufactured for the public’s use, though, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is regulated as an over-the-counter drug product by the FDA. “Normally, unless you’re a company in compliance with the various requirements imposed on drug manufacturers, then the FDA would not allow you to start selling hand sanitizer,” says Liz Richardson, the director of health care products projects at the Pew Charitable Trusts. In response to the public health emergency—as well as interest from organizations that aren’t currently licensed or registered drug manufacturers—the agency issued the new guidance Friday, which could relax some of those requirements.
Some regulations still apply. For example, the FDA requires that producers use pharmaceutical-grade ingredients (ethanol or isopropyl alcohol in an aqueous solution, glycerol, hydrogen peroxide, and distilled water) and follow an exact recipe, called a monograph. Based on the FDA’s new guidance, Richardson says, “if you make alcohol-based sanitizer for consumers’ use in line with the guidance directions, then they’re going to exercise enforcement discretion and not impose any other requirements on you during this period of emergency.” Jeremy Kahn, a spokesperson for the FDA, says the agency does not discuss compliance of particular products but pointed to a press release about the agency’s temporary policy.