Clean Hands: USU Chemists Make Hand Sanitizer in Effort to Stop COVID-19 Spread

Keeping hands clean is among deterrents to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens. Washing with soap and water helps to quash spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, as soap breaks down each virion’s (virus particle’s) surrounding lipid bilayer – the fatty membrane encasing those spiky viral spheres itching to invade human host cells. (Yep, SARS-CoV-2 virions are essentially microscopic greaseballs in need of a sudsy smackdown.)

Utah State University’s Four Principles of COVID-19 Prevention include cleaning hands often by washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. When a water faucet and soap aren’t at the ready, the next best tool is hand sanitizer.

To keep its labs, classrooms and offices well-stocked and its students, faculty and staff healthy, USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry elected to make its own sanitizer.

“Sometimes, while conducting research or sitting in a lecture, it’s not possible to wash your hands,” says Lance Seefeldt, department head. “So we wanted to make plenty of hand sanitizer available for our students and employees. The World Health Organization – the WHO – provides formulation guides and we thought, ‘Why not make our own?’”

Seefeldt directed Dick Logsdon, glass blower in the department’s Chemistry Stores supply depot, to prepare sanitizer as department personnel prepared for fall semester.

“Hand sanitizer is available from a number of suppliers, but making it ourselves offered us immediate accessibility and saved shipping costs and time,” Logsdon says. “At the time we were preparing for students’ return to campus, sanitizer was also in short supply.”

What’s in the WHO formulas? Well, the agency offers two approaches. Each includes hydrogen peroxide (to decontaminate the finished solution – not your hands), glycerol (to help the finished product glide on smoothly) and distilled water. You have a choice of adding either ethanol or 200-proof isopropyl alcohol – the “business end” of the sanitizer, which actually helps to rid your hands of pathogens.

“What you don’t see in the formulas, and what you don’t want to see in any sanitizer you buy, is methanol,” Logsdon says. “Methanol is poisonous if consumed and there’s always a chance, even if you’re conscientious, of inadvertently transferring it to your mouth or your food or drink.”

Are the WHO formulations easy enough to make at home?

“Probably not,” Logsdon says. “Sourcing all the ingredients and having the tools to put them together might be a challenge. It’s easier for most consumers to buy it off the shelf.”

Aiding the effort in the department and throughout the College of Science are employees who’ve dutifully saved empty liquid soap dispensers to contain the department-made sanitizer.

“We’d been advised by the university that dispensers were in short supply,” says Katriel Hatfield, administrative assistant in the College of Science Dean’s Office. “Our employees rallied by bringing dozens of recycled pump bottles we could repurpose as hand sanitizer dispensers.”

Seefeldt says everyone wants to do their part.

“Our goal is to keep everyone healthy and to keep classes and research moving forward,” Seefeldt says. “The university’s guidelines – wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance, staying home when you’re sick and keeping your hands clean – are easy to follow. It’s heartening to see Aggies doing their best to keep everyone safe.”

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