About Hand Sanitizer

The Role Distilleries Have Played in the Recent Pandemic

Distilleries to the Rescue

From the time of the first settlers, alcohol has always been there for Americans, to help them celebrate the good times and get through the tough. Perhaps no time in our history has proven quite so tough as the current Covid-19 pandemic, and alcohol distilleries have stepped in once again, rallying to the Covid-19 cry. This time, however, their help comes in a different way, as liquor manufacturers throughout the U.S. turn their facilities to creating not drinking alcohol but hand sanitizers to help stem the pandemic.

What is Hand Sanitizer?

Hand sanitizer is a liquid, gel or foam that is used for the killing of germs, most often used as a hand wash or for wiping down surfaces. Most hand sanitizers are created with some form of isopropyl alcohol or ethanol making up 60-95% of the product, mixed with additives to prevent the skin from drying out, and maybe a fragrance.

An Important Part of Disease Control

Hand sanitizers have long been used in the fight against infection, but never have they been so critical as in the current, ongoing struggle against the coronavirus. While the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) still maintains that hand washing with soap and water is the first choice to reduce the spread of COVD-19, it has also come out in favor of alcohol-based hand rub (ABHR) as an effective means of sanitizing hands when soap and water are unavailable or impractical. Those little packets and pump bottles of hand sanitizer are proving to be literal lifesavers when used by first responders such as EMTs and other healthcare workers, as well as those who must face the public in essential businesses, including workers in groceries, pharmacies and post offices.

Unfortunately, when the coronavirus pandemic because an alarming fact, hand sanitizer became one of the first victims of the ensuing panic, the bottles flying off the store shelves and becoming scarce. Production couldn’t keep up with demand, and the situation became desperate.

Enter the Distilleries

Liquor manufacturers were also facing the impending shutdown with alarm, knowing that with the coming shutdowns, their workers would become part of the unavoidable unemployment statistics. Then a bright spot appeared: distilleries could be repurposed to create hand sanitizers, saving worker jobs and providing a vital supply to help fight the pandemic. To help pick up the slack, many major distilleries and smaller craft liquor companies around the country began turning their attention toward the production of hand sanitizer

Distilleries are uniquely qualified for this task because:

  1. they possess the non-reactive tanks and base alcohol to produce high-proof alcohol, the main ingredient in hand sanitizers; 
  2. they already have the permits that allow them to purchase the necessary corn-based ethanol to create the product; and
  3. they have the trained and experienced workers ready to jump in and provide the hand sanitizers so critical for public health. 

As a secondary, but just as important result of changing their focus, producing hand sanitizer allows these businesses to continue operation and keep the business—and the many workers—afloat in perilous times.

Early Problems and Quick Solutions

Changing Regulations

Government regulations kept distilleries of products for consumption from making other, nonconsumable products with alcohol—such as hand sanitizer.  When l officials realized that these regulations were blocking the production of hand sanitizer—a vital weapon in combatting the virus—they relaxed the rules on a temporary basis, easing them to allow production of hand sanitizer in distilleries, much in the way many factories were repurposed for the war effort during World War II. As a result, distillers were given more freedom to follow the WHO regulations for creating hand sanitizer, a more liberal ruling that allows the use of either natured or denatured alcohol. In addition, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) relaxed its regulations on changing products because of the health emergency of the coronavirus pandemic, and distilled spirits producers were ruled exempt from having to get new permits. The easing of these regulations allowed for large-scale production of hand sanitizer by distilleries.

Reassigning Taxes

Another problem stemmed from the high excise tax levied on liquor producers of drinkable alcohol. At first, the taxes were still in place, despite the change to a nonconsumable item.  To reduce the tax burden, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into effect on March 27, 2020, gave a temporary exemption from excise taxes imposed on distilleries to those adjusting to making hand sanitizer, but only for those using denatured alcohol (an FDA requirement not dictated in the WHO recipe).

Making the Product Safer

As production continued, hand sanitizer bottles became scarce, and distillers turned to using standard liquor bottles, increasing the danger of accidental (or intentional) ingestion, especially by children. Since the alcohol in hand sanitizer is roughly 120 proof (as opposed to vodka, which is 80 proof), and has additional ingredients, it can be toxic. Thus, the FDA required that the alcohol in the sanitizer be denatured to make it bitter and less likely to be drunk. This led to further problems as the denaturing product, becoming more in demand, also became scarce and thus more expensive.

Types of Hand Sanitizers

Hand sanitizers come in two types: alcohol-based (ABHR) and alcohol-free. Although both are proven effective in the fight against infectious diseases, both the WHO and the CDC have stated a preference for ABHR, mainly because of some questions as to the safety of some antimicrobial chemicals used in the alcohol-free sanitizers. On the whole, though, both types are safe and effective in fighting infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

ABHR hand sanitizers are created when alcohol is combined with hydrogen peroxide and glycerin. The CDC’s recommended makeup of ABHR is greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol—the least found to kill coronavirus. FDA regulations require denaturing the alcohol to make it unpalatable and thus reduce the possibility that it would be ingested, a problem  particularly for children who might accidentally drink it (not helped by the fact that the new product was being sold in the bottles originally meant for alcohol). This is why the idea of denatured alcohol, which has a bitter taste, has been strongly defended. The new (and constantly evolving) regulations allow distilled spirit plants (DSP) to use the Who formula (which may or may not include denatured alcohol) without fear of retaliation.

Thanks to the willingness of distillery owners to lend a hand, and their ability to quickly refocus their production, hand sanitizers are more easily available to the public, as a powerful weapon against the viral enemy that threatens us all.