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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Jewelry. Candles. Hand Sanitizer. Welcome to Coronavirus Etsy

Liad Nemeth’s family has been in the jewelry-making business for years, selling supplies to hobbyists and creating handmade jewelry for sale on Etsy. A few weeks ago, amidst the heart-shaped lockets and hamsa necklaces, a new item landed in her Etsy shop: hand sanitizer, sold in 1 ounce bottles for $3.99.

Nemeth’s son, Drew, had heard about hand sanitizer flying off the shelves in convenience stores amid the coronavirus pandemic. As a byproduct of their business, they already had a lot of little plastic bottles that looked similar to the ones used by major manufacturers. So he looked up what else he needed to make a homemade batch. “It ended up that we had 70 percent of the supplies on hand through the other business, so we were like, ‘Sure, let’s make some,’” he says.

As Covid-19 continues to spread in the US, hand sanitizer has become a staple of many Americans’ new hygiene-conscious routine. Soap and water remains the gold standard recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but in shared spaces and on the go, hand sanitizer offers a quick line of defense. It doubles as a symbol of our collective anxiety: For weeks, sanitizer has been sold out or exceedingly hard to find at stores across the country.

With big-name brands like Purell still struggling to meet demand, a different set of producers have stepped in to fill the gap. There are boutique labels like EO Products, a Bay Area-based company that quadrupled its production of hand sanitizer, The Wall Street Journal reports, and still can’t keep it in stock. In France, the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH converted its perfume factory to make hand sanitizer instead. Distilleries are distributing cleanser made with high-proof alcohol to meet CDC guidelines of 60 percent. New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state would make its own sanitizer using prison labor.

The supply has become so strangled that the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates antiseptic products in the US, has encouraged pharmacists and physicians to start making their own stash. On Friday, the agency issued a new guidance temporarily relaxing the requirements for manufacturing hand sanitizers while the country deals with the public health emergency.

That’s opened the door for new sellers on platforms like Etsy to introduce homemade batches. Etsy, known for things like novelty needlepoints, is not generally an emergency backstop for pandemic cleaning supplies. But more and more of its shops have started listing masks and hand sanitizers amid crafting materials and artisan goods.

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In Florida, Robert Neidler sells soy candles and other aromatherapy products on both Etsy and Amazon. He already had a stockpile of high-grade isopropyl alcohol, the kind used to make hand sanitizer, because he uses it to clean out equipment for his candle production. “The opportunity showed itself, and so we did some reformulation and shifted the shop around,” he says. Now, hand sanitizer joins the other products in his Etsy shop; it comes in 2 ounce bottles for $9.99.

Neidler’s candle business hasn’t taken much of a hit; more people are at home and looking for a way to unwind at the end of an anxious day. But nothing has sold as quickly as the hand sanitizer. “We’re seeing about a 40 percent increase of our in-home product sales, so candles, wax melts, and aromatherapy stuff,” says Neidler, compared to last year. “But we’ve seen a 400 percent increase in sales on hand sanitizer” since it was first introduced to the shop.

Making hand sanitizer at home isn’t terribly complicated. When manufactured for the public’s use, though, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is regulated as an over-the-counter drug product by the FDA. “Normally, unless you’re a company in compliance with the various requirements imposed on drug manufacturers, then the FDA would not allow you to start selling hand sanitizer,” says Liz Richardson, the director of health care products projects at the Pew Charitable Trusts. In response to the public health emergency—as well as interest from organizations that aren’t currently licensed or registered drug manufacturers—the agency issued the new guidance Friday, which could relax some of those requirements.

Some regulations still apply. For example, the FDA requires that producers use pharmaceutical-grade ingredients (ethanol or isopropyl alcohol in an aqueous solution, glycerol, hydrogen peroxide, and distilled water) and follow an exact recipe, called a monograph. Based on the FDA’s new guidance, Richardson says, “if you make alcohol-based sanitizer for consumers’ use in line with the guidance directions, then they’re going to exercise enforcement discretion and not impose any other requirements on you during this period of emergency.” Jeremy Kahn, a spokesperson for the FDA, says the agency does not discuss compliance of particular products but pointed to a press release about the agency’s temporary policy.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Etsy pointed to policies laid out in the platform’s “House Rules.” Etsy monitors its marketplace for items that make medical claims, but says that it is the sellers’ responsibility to comply with laws that pertain to items they sell on the platform, including hand sanitizer. And that means shoppers must trust the sellers, too.

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Other ecommerce platforms are also confronting problems related to the coronavirus pandemic, from supply chain disruptions to price gouging. Amazon has removed over 1 million items from third-party sellers who artificially inflated prices or falsely advertised a product’s effectiveness against the coronavirus. On a webpage clarifying its policies relating to the coronavirus, Etsy writes that it is “actively monitoring and taking down listings related to COVID-19 that are against Etsy’s policies. This includes items that falsely claim to protect against COVID-19/Coronavirus or otherwise make false medical drug claims.” The site has also cracked down on items that “attempt to exploit the developing coronavirus situation,” like t-shirts and novelty mugs.

People have been making homemade hand sanitizer long before Covid-19, though. Karrie Rutherford has been selling her formula in farmer’s markets for the last 17 years. In recent weeks, she says finding high-grade ingredients, like isopropyl alcohol, is much harder. “I was fortunate to purchase a case of alcohol before the mad rush on stores, but what I didn't foresee was that aloe vera juice would sell out,” she says. “After a bit of store-hopping I was fortunate to find some at the local health food store—but at three times the price.” She doesn’t want to jack up her prices, so for now, she’s listing the hand sanitizers in her Etsy store in batches to make sure she doesn’t run out of inventory. She thinks she has enough raw materials to last another week or so.

For Rutherford, the recent demand has been a validation of a longstanding business. For other sellers, it’s an opportunity to make some extra money. Ordinarily, pivoting to artisanal hand sanitizer might be considered a risky move—compared to mass-produced brands that sell for under 50 cents per ounce, the sanitizers on Etsy are splurges, especially in an economy that’s looking more uncertain by the day. (Etsy’s CEO last week urged Congress to ensure any Covid-19 relief package include self-employed Americans, a group that includes nearly all of the platform’s sellers.) But these are not ordinary circumstances.

“If we tried to manufacture this during a normal time, we wouldn’t sell anything,” says Nemeth. “We’d be priced way above Purell and the other big hand sanitizer manufacturing brands. But because of the situation, there’s just a lack of it in general, so we’re able to price it a little higher and people will still buy it.”

Most of the Etsy sellers won’t continue making hand sanitizer forever. For now, though, it’s been “a good pivot” for sellers like Nemeth. Next, he’s looking into how to manufacture productive masks. “We have the skillset and tool shop to do a lot of things,” he says. “It’s looking at the marketplace and trying to meet needs.”

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