Even though it seems like one million years ago, we are only nine months past the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020. While TP quickly became the catch-all term (the, ahem, butt of the joke) for generally barren grocery shelves, equally scarce and fought over were disinfectant sprays, gels, and wipes. Name brands like Germ-X and Clorox vanished from shelves as people entered quarantine, and they have yet to fully return.
Luckily, making your own disinfectant sprays and wipes is much easier than making your own toilet paper. Isopropyl or ethyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or bleach can be used to make effective, low-cost disinfectant that you can customize for the home, car, and office.
Isopropyl or rubbing alcohol kills disease-causing bacteria and viruses through denaturation, a process in which alcohol molecules attach to and break down germ molecules’ protective outer layers. Once that layer is gone, the bacteria or virus's main components are exposed, dissolve, and die.
Studies suggest that alcohol, a dehydrating agent, loses its efficacy in higher concentrations because water helps catalyze the denaturation process. For this reason, 70% isopropyl alcohol or diluted 90-99% are the best options for killing germs.
Relive the hooch-filled glory days with isopropyl alcohol’s relative, ethyl alcohol. (Let’s not talk about how something we ingested for fun in our youth can also be used to disinfect hard surfaces.) Ethyl alcohol—also known as ethanol, pure grain alcohol, or white lightning if you’re south of the Ohio River—uses the same denaturation process as isopropyl alcohol but only at concentrations of 60% or higher. Note: percent, not proof.
For an alcohol concentration of 60% or higher, a distilled spirit needs to be at least 150 proof. Don’t let a 100 proof bottle of vodka fool you; it might taste like it could disinfect a countertop, but in reality, it won’t be strong enough to kill off the viruses that cause the common cold, seasonal flu, or the coronavirus.
Boasting antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties, hydrogen peroxide is a safe bet for effectively protecting against a wide range of unsavory molecules. Its ability to fight germs on its own is a good thing, too—mixing hydrogen peroxide with the wrong chemicals can be incredibly dangerous. And although it’s nontoxic, we recommend using hydrogen peroxide on hard surfaces only. It's safe enough to use on cuts and scrapes, but it should be avoided near the eyes and can cause skin irritation after prolonged exposure.
Another quirky trait of hydrogen peroxide: its potency decreases when exposed to sunlight, which is why it’s normally found in opaque brown bottles. Make sure to store hydrogen peroxide in opaque containers or somewhere dark.
Last on our list of DIY disinfectant bases is bleach, a corrosive and potentially dangerous material that’s great for killing germs (including those that cause COVID-19) but not so great for long-term storage or use on the skin. Bleach should always be diluted with water, and Michigan State University offers a handy guide for finding the right bleach-to-water ratio for various bleach products.
A bleach and water solution can disinfect surfaces at home, in the car, or the office. Its active ingredient, sodium hypochlorite, burns or oxidizes the protective membrane of bacteria, viruses, and fungi on contact. Make sure to wear gloves and only clean in well-ventilated areas. Never mix bleach with ammonia or acids like toilet bowl or rust cleaners.
Making your own disinfectant sprays from home is as simple as measuring and pouring. Empty spray bottles can be purchased online or repurposed from thoroughly washed bottles already collecting dust in the cupboard. Alter the ratio amounts to fit into whatever size bottle you end up using, pour, twist tight, and that’s it.
Using the same ratios as the disinfectant sprays, you can create quick and convenient disinfectant wipes. Keep a container in your bag, on your desk, or in the center console of your car for easy access all day long. The following containers can all be used to store disinfectant wipes without drying out:
For easy-to-pull wipes like the ones from the store, find a cylindrical, sealable plastic or glass container wide enough to fit a roll of paper towels (you can always unroll some of the towels if necessary). Use a knife to trim the paper towel roll to the right height to fit snugly in the container. Pour enough disinfecting solution into the container to completely saturate the roll of paper towels. Seal and set aside.
After about 30 minutes of soaking, gently pull the saturated cardboard out from the center of the paper towels. Pull a paper towel out from the center—this will be the start of the disinfectant wipes chain. If you're using an old disinfectant wipe container, thread this paper towel end through the star-shaped hole in the lid. Tear at the perforation like usual.
Rectangular or flat containers can also be used just as easily. Unroll your paper towels into a layered pile of towel sheets. Trim to fit your container as necessary, saturate, and that’s it!
Masks are great for protecting against germs and protecting your nose from the smell of disinfecting solutions made to kill said germs. It’s a win-win, really. But eventually, those masks do come off, and if you’re not crazy about the smell of pure alcohol, bleach, or hydrogen peroxide (we know, crazy, right?), you can take your germ-fighting supplies to the next level with essential oils that smell great and have antiviral or antibacterial properties of their own.
Various research suggests that tea tree oil is highly effective as an antiviral agent. Cinnamon, cloves, thyme, rosemary, lemongrass, and eucalyptus have also been found to have antiviral and antibacterial properties that only add to the efficacy of your disinfectant solutions. (It doesn’t hurt that any combination of these irresistible scents smells incredible.)
Disinfecting commonly touched surfaces and hands is a great way to decrease the likelihood of catching a cold, the flu, or even COVID. But a weary immune system can only be protected so much, so make sure to actively work towards maintaining a healthy immune system by: