Disinfectants and hand sanitizers remain hard to find at U.S. retailers, despite four months of emergency measures from the EPA and FDA to boost production, with supply chains maxed out by a still-raging pandemic.
“Demand for hand sanitizer and disinfectants is at biblical proportions right now,” said Owen Caine, executive vice president of government relations and public policy at the Household and Commercial Products Association.
Caine praised the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration for relaxing some regulations that have helped manufacturers streamline production processes while providing a pathway for new companies—including breweries and distilleries—to enter the market.
But demand continues to outstrip supply in many places, he said. “The supply chain is running at maximum.”
‘Another Year at Least’
And shortages could actually get worse, at least for consumers who want name brands and trusted products.
“As restaurants, stores, and schools open back up, they’re wiping things down 10 times a shift, and demand could be even greater than before,” said Bryan Ashenbaum, a management professor at Miami University of Ohio, who used to work at Procter & Gamble.
Meeting that demand would require large capital investments in factories and machinery, which many companies are loathe to make during an economic downturn, Ashenbaum said.
“I’m guessing they may try to increase supply in other ways, with third-party contacts, and suppliers—basically anyone who can put stuff in a plastic bottle,” he said.
Even for companies taking the plunge, it could take months or longer before new or enlarged factories are running.
“It’s probably going to be another year at least before we have enough production,” said Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University.
Global Supply Variables
The recent surge in coronavirus infections in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas shows the peril in predicting supply and demand, Penfield said. And some ingredients are produced outside the U.S. in countries including China, India, and the European Union.
“So what happens if some of those countries decide to keep those ingredients to serve their own populations?” he said. “That’s the problem with global supply chain; one disruption impacts everything.”
GOJO Industries Inc., the Akron, Ohio-based manufacturer of Purell products, said it’s investing in production and employing a number of strategies to source components and raw materials.
“We’re shipping more than a billion doses of hand sanitizer per week in North America alone,” said Samantha Williams, corporate communications senior director at GOJO.
The company has already produced more than twice the hand sanitizer this year that it produced in all of 2019, and plans to add more than 2 million square feet of additional manufacturing space by this time next year, she said.
“At that point, we’ll be capable of providing more than a billion doses per day, versus several hundred million a week just last year,” Williams said, referring to squirts from a bottle.
‘Faster Than Making Whiskey’
Other major manufacturers are shifting product lines to focus more on essential products like hand sanitizer and disinfectants.
“We’ve been running our cleaning and disinfecting product plants 24/7, adding new third-party manufacturers every month, and reducing our assortment to manufacture more products more efficiently,” said Naomi Greer, a spokeswoman for the Clorox Company.
Clorox has seen an unprecedented spike in demand—up to 500%—on some disinfecting products during the pandemic, Greer said, even while prioritizing shipments to health care workers and first responders
Different industries with experience in mixing and bottling ingredients have also been critical in filling some of the supply gaps.
Arlon Jones, owner of Casey Jones Distillery in Hopkinsville, Ky., credits hand sanitizer with saving his business.
“It’s actually quite a bit faster than making whiskey,” said Jones, who was forced to lay off most of the employees of his small craft distillery in March. Switching over to hand sanitizer has allowed him to bring all those employees back, plus 16 more to keep up with manufacturing and shipping.
The basic ingredients in hand sanitizer are glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, and high-proof ethyl alcohol, of which Jones says he has plenty, due to the presence of a biofuel refinery located right in Hopkinsville.
In the beginning, Jones said he was getting so many calls he could hardly keep up. Now, he said, he’s shipping some 3,500 packages a day.
“It’s kind of strange,” he said. “There are states that I can’t ship my liquor to, but now I’m shipping alcohol everywhere in bottles of hand sanitizer.”
More than 800 distilleries in the U.S. are now making tens of thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer per day, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.