Hand sanitizers drying you out? This new fermented gel is better for your hands—and the environment.
For many Americans, the first sign that a pandemic was coming happened at the grocery store. The toilet paper aisle was suddenly empty. Then came the run on hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, gloves, and masks. As COVID-19 continues to squeeze much of the world, the supply lines for many of these essential goods are still sputtering. In the US, N95 masks remain rare. Hand sanitizer, on the other hand, is in stock. In some stores, it has even replaced candy and gossip magazines at the checkout.
Regular use of hand sanitizer does keep the virus at bay, but it also wreaks havoc on the skin. With overuse, your primary barrier to the gunk outside your body can become dried and even cracked. The alcohol in hand sanitizer also obliterates most of the good microbes that are supposed to live on your skin.
Visolis, a Berkeley-based company specializing in fermenting innovative natural products, may have hit on a solution to these stinging hand sanitizer problems.
All hands on deck
In the early days of the COVID pandemic, Visolis donated its small stockpile of gloves and masks to HealthRIGHT 360, a local healthcare non-profit. “I realized that there’s going to be a big, big shortage of this personal protective equipment,” says Deepak Dugar, president of Visolis. “We even had a lot of alcohol on hand because we use that for our own internal experiments. For all biology experiments, you need to sanitize everything around you.”
Dugar decided to convert Visolis’s stockpile of laboratory alcohol into the formula recommended by the WHO. The company then donated the concoction. “That was all we were going to do at that point because we didn’t have much more to offer,” he said.
But in talking with the non-profit that received the supplies, Dugar discovered some issues.
“A few things were missing. One was that because these were coming in as donations, they were coming in as big bottles or gallon jugs, or even bigger five-gallon pails. If you are a nurse practitioner or a doctor, you can’t be carrying those things around.”
“The second one, which was more interesting for me as a biochemist, was that this hand sanitizer really dries out your hand because it has so much alcohol in it. In the lab, we typically use gloves with hand sanitizer on top, so the alcohol never touches the skin. But most people use hand sanitizer directly on the skin, and alcohol has a dehydrating effect.”
Brewing better solutions
Visolis is one of many companies that sees biology as the ultimate builder. Since learning about the human genome project as a young man in India, Dugar has been motivated to integrate biology into large-scale manufacturing. Shifting away from petrochemicals and towards better biological solutions is vital to achieving a sustainable economy, he believes. Before COVID-19, Visolis focused on fermenting a range of specialty goods for use in personal care to high-performance, carbon-negative polymers.
“We had been working for the last four years on this ingredient, which boosts skin’s hydration level naturally. So, putting those two things together, [we created] a new moisturizing hand sanitizer which is all plant-based,” said Dugar.The ingredient in question is mevalonic acid, or mev acid. Visolis became interested in the compound years ago and had already worked out a strategy for fermenting it in its lab in Hayward, California. “Just like a brewer would take sugars and brew alcohol, we have developed a process to brew plant sugars into mev acid,” said Dugar.
Visolis partnered with a cosmetics supplier down the street who provided pocketable bottles and filling lines. In weeks, the moisturizing hand sanitizer was out the door and in the hands and pockets of frontline healthcare workers in the Bay Area.
Some of the nurses who received the first batches have expressed to Dugar that they want to keep using it, and would even buy some for their friends and family going forward. Visolis is now scaling up production.
Paul Petersen, vice president of the company, believes many are still skeptical about whether plant-based products can perform as well as the competition, especially during a pandemic. “Part of the goal of this product is — yes, it’s a hand sanitizer, it will keep you safe against germs and viruses in the short term, but it will also help protect the skin in the long term as well. I think that’s something that’s kind of unique.”
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Ian Haydon for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m an operating partner at DCVC, which has invested in Visolis. I’m also the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.0