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The hand sanitizer shortage for the public won’t end anytime soon. Producers are earmarking much of the supply for health care and first responders.
By early March, the COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented shortage of hand sanitizers at stores and online.
A reader asked us, when will we be able to buy hand sanitizer again?
The short answer is, it doesn’t appear anytime soon.
"The issue is we have a huge surge in demand across all sectors, so supply cannot keep up," said Nada Sanders, a professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not accessible, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizers. Hand sanitizers are especially useful when people are outside the home on necessary chores, like grocery shopping, where soap and water isn’t readily available.
Studies show hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol are more effective at killing germs than those with a lower alcohol concentration or none at all. Yet despite that guidance, alcohol-free hand sanitizers flew off the shelves in the United States.
A spokeswoman for GoJo, the Akron, Ohio, company that produces the hand sanitizer Purell, said the company doesn’t disclose sales or production numbers, but the company is operating around the clock. But it’s only shipping the product for hospitals, first responders and critical infrastructure, company spokeswoman Samantha Williams told PolitiFact.
Williams provided no timeline for making products available to individuals. Spokespersons for retailers like Publix and Target also had no timeline for when consumers can easily find hand sanitizer on their shelves.
"We are receiving limited quantities of hand sanitizer. As you might imagine, what we receive sells very quickly," said Maria Brous, a spokeswoman for Publix. "Like some other disinfectant-providing suppliers, production capacity has been shifted to support the health care industry."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidance in March to allow the temporary manufacture of some alcohol-based hand sanitizer products. The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau temporarily waived provisions of tax law to allow distilleries to produce ethanol-based hand sanitizers.
Brad Plummer, a spokesman for the American Distilling Institute, said about 350 distilleries nationwide are now producing hand sanitizer. Distilleries are using the formula recommended by the World Health Organization.
Individuals can contact distilleries in their area to ask if they are selling any hand sanitizer to the public, but many are selling their product to particular sectors rather than the public.
"Most distilleries are trying to get as much as they can to law enforcement and front-line health care workers," Plummer said.
Glenn Richey, a supply chain management professor at Auburn University, said "forward buying" by consumers caused a huge spike in demand. Consumers’ hoarding will likely cause businesses in the supply chain to over-forecast and then become overstocked a year from now.
"This means that newly minted manufacturers of the product may not have sufficient demand to remain in business after the panic subsides," he said.
Many consumers have followed do-it-yourself recipes to make hand sanitizers for personal use. The FDA concluded that it lacks information to determine whether such DIY recipes are safe for use on human skin.
MediaWise, a media literacy initiative that includes student fact-checkers, fact-checked whether consumers can make their own hand sanitizer. MediaWise found that a post with instructions on homemade sanitizer needs context and that " washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the best way to stay safe." (MediaWise and PolitiFact are both owned by the Poynter Institute.)
Yahoo!, Purell makers say they have 'dramatically increased production' March 10, 2020
MediaWise, Can you make your own hand sanitizer? March 2020
New York Times, The Man With 17,700 Bottles of Hand Sanitizer Just Donated Them, March 15, 2020
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Prevention & Treatment, 2020
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings, 2020
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Warning letter to GOJO, Jan. 17, 2020
GOJO, Response to FDA, Jan. 24, 2020
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA provides guidance on production of alcohol-based hand sanitizer to help boost supply, protect public health, March 20, 2020
Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Production of Hand Sanitizer by Distilled Spirits Permittees, March 18, 2020
ProPublica, You Might Be Buying a Hand Sanitizer That Won’t Work for Coronavirus, March 6, 2020
PolitiFact, Hand sanitizer can be used to prevent coronavirus infection, March 3, 2020
Email interview, Jeremy Kahn, U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokesman, April 1, 2020
Email interview, Samantha Williams, GoJo spokeswoman, April 1, 2020
Email interview, Maria Brous, Publix spokesman, April 1, 2020
Email interview, Shane Kitzman, Target spokesman, April 1, 2020
Email interview, Nada R. Sanders, professor of supply chain management, Northeastern University, April 1, 2020
Email interview, Robert Glenn Richey, Jr., professor of supply chain management, Auburn University, April 1, 2020
Telephone interview, Brad Plummer, American Distilling Institute spokesman and Editor in Chief, Distiller Magazine, April 2, 2020