I Have 400 Bottles of Hand Sanitizer and Nowhere to Sell It
by Antenna Wilde
It was sometime in late March that I started looking for hand sanitizer at the local stores. Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid… sold out. The local supermarkets were sold out. A week went by and Amazon was sold out. Major news outlets began running articles about how to make it at home, linking to the World Health Organization website where they listed their formula in detail. Perfect. All I had to do now was buy the ingredients.
Wrong. I couldn’t find isopropyl alcohol anywhere, or hydrogen peroxide. Other recipes included simply isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera gel, but aloe vera was sold out everywhere too. All of the usual avenues were closed. I did have one bottle of isopropyl in my medicine cabinet along with some aloe vera gel and made a bottle the quick way. In the meantime I started looking online for the ingredients to make more.
Finding singles bottles of isopropyl alcohol, aloe vera gel and/or hydrogen peroxide was an exercise in futility, so I grew bold. I started looking for gallon jugs but failed. Then five gallon jugs, to no avail. I finally found some five gallon jugs from an unusual source: a T-shirt screen-printing supplier. Apparently isopropyl is used to clean the ink off of silk-screens. Great. I bought a five gallon jug of 99.9% isopropyl alcohol.
What I didn’t know at the time was that this is a flammable product and needed to be shipped LTL, costing me an additional pretty penny. So be it. I had the good fortune of finding three large bottles of hydrogen peroxide from a local Walgreens that had just opened up the day before, ready stocked with everything in advance, and found glycerin and vitamin E from a large soap supplier in Michigan. The vitamin E wasn’t part of the WHO formula but was a nice addition for people like me with especially dry hands. The vitamin E was very expensive.
What was I going to do with a five gallon bucket of isopropyl alcohol? The WHO formula could create roughly seven gallons of hand sanitizer with 75% alcohol content. I decided to sell some and give some away to neighbors and friends, so I went online and bought 100 4 ounce bottles and caps. The WHO website said that the sanitizer should be labeled a certain way. It had to include the date of manufacture, the contents in ratios, and comments like, “for external use only” and “keep away from children”. I followed the rules, made a label from an app, created an account with an online label maker, uploaded the label and made another purchase.
While waiting for the supplies to arrive I made further preparations. In my shed was a garden sprayer that I cleaned out three times. I cleared a space in the garage and put out a table, scale, and electric mixing stick and stainless steel pots. I had become, like many people, recently unemployed and besides being a single, full-time dad and sudden full-time home-schooler, had the time to do all of this.
The bottles and labels arrived and I labeled them all. The rest of the supplies arrived and I weighed them to the ounce and mixed them according to the WHO instructions. That was the easy part. I filled the bottles, put on the caps, and started handing them out to friends and neighbors. Then I posted an ad on a local rag and quickly sold out. I was done… or was I?
Being unemployed with no income, it seemed like a good idea to make more. Back at the screen printing supply company they were quickly beginning to sell out of isopropyl alcohol. I took a chance. Using my credit card I bought four more five gallon buckets, then began searching for bottles again. This is where the nightmare began.
The bottles were sold out everywhere. Estimates showed no new shipments would arrive (from China of course) for at least another month. The search went on for hours at a time. I finally found a bottle company in Kentucky that had some, so I purchased 400 bottles and tops. A week went by and no notifications came to my email. I checked with the company and they assured me they would ship in the next two days. Three days later I asked again, but no reply. Another four days passed and I called and left a message. I emailed too, but no reply. After a total of 14 days and countless hours I found another bottle supplier that had enough bottles and ordered them. Then I cancelled the order from the fraudulent company in Kentucky, disputed the charge on my credit card, and waited.
Good luck arrived! The bottles came as ordered and I went about mixing the formula, filling and labeling the bottles in my garage in Vermont. It was cold in the garage, about 40 degrees. Filling each bottle individually took a lot of time. It seemed like NPR was on the radio for days on end. When a had a batch of bottles ready I put them aside and made some more. Then I started advertising again, but this time things were quiet. I drove around to local stores and gave out free samples. I called local drug stores and left messages. I emailed the local hospital and got no response. The credit card bill came. I grew depressed.
Soon enough a local convenience store bought twenty bottles and things were looking up, but I still had 474 bottles in my garage and over two thousand dollars on my credit card. I drove 5 miles south, stopping at convenience stores along the way, leaving free samples. I handed out more bottles to friends and neighbors. I gave twenty bottles to a local homeless shelter. After two weeks I opened an eBay account, and then a PayPal account. I took pictures, boxed several cases of bottles, researched shipping prices at the local post office and finally listed my product.
And eBay responded:
Due to regulatory restrictions across the United States, we have chosen to ban certain items listed on our site.
Effective immediately, eBay will block new listings and start to remove listings that sell:
• Health care masks including N95/N100 and surgical masks
• Hand Sanitizer/Gel
• Disinfecting Wipes
We will continue to monitor the evolving situation and quickly remove any listing that mentions COVID-19, coronavirus, 2019nCoV (except books) in the title or description.
These listings may violate applicable US laws or regulations, eBay policies, and exhibit unfair pricing behavior for our buyers.
Apparently people were price-gouging, but I wasn’t. I was selling 4oz hand sanitizers at $7 a bottle, and for less when they bought them in bulk. After calculating all my costs I was not profiting more than 50% of my investment, and that was not including my time. If I included all of my time, at $15 an hour, the price would be ridiculously high, perhaps $20 per bottle. What my hourly wage would be at $7 per bottle I have no idea, perhaps two or three dollars an hour, probably less. I never thought about my hourly wage because I wasn’t doing it to “cash in” on the crisis. I was doing it because I found myself doing it, had lost my job, and it was a product that people desperately needed.
People I have spoken to have praised me. They say what a great idea it was, how it’s a service that people need, that my prices are fair, and that the product is good. They say it’s the American entrepreneurial spirit, a free-market society. Capitalism at its best. But looking at the boxes of bottles in the living room, the credit card bill on the table, and my kid doing her homework online, all I can think of is how I wish I hadn’t bothered, and that I would have been much better off spending my time helping her with her schoolwork. Now I’ll focus on collecting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, if I can get it. In the USA, it seems you are only allowed to by your hand sanitizer from a monopoly like Walmart, or Target, or Home Depot… but good luck finding it.