Spending

Creative ways to get hard-to-find supplies like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and face masks

Hand sanitizer by Hotel Tango Distillery in Indianapolis.
Courtesy Hotel Tango Distillery

Picking up toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or face masks is no easy task these days: Panicked shoppers have cleared out shelves at many stores, and some big retailers are starting to limit purchases of in-demand items as the stores get them in stock.

So consumers, producers, and retailers around the country are finding creative ways to fill the gaps.

High-end fashion houses and home crafters have started making face masks, hundreds of distilleries have shifted their production to hand sanitizer, and some restaurants — which have largely become takeout/delivery-only businesses — have started adding toilet paper as a free gift with orders.

Here are a few unexpected ways to get these key supplies.

Toilet paper

While toilet paper has become scarce at supermarkets, bar and restaurant owners tell Grow that their distributors have remained largely well-stocked. Many restaurants — which have temporarily converted into takeout/delivery only operations — have taken advantage by including free rolls with orders.

"I just happened to ask my food distributor Maines if they had any in stock, and they did! So I was easily able to get more," says Alina Kim, owner of K-House Karaoke Lounge & Suites in Ithaca, New York. "Since Maines only delivers wholesale to commercial accounts that are mostly shut down restaurants and bars, they had plenty in stock."

Pearl's Social & Billy Club in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn recently started adding rolls of toilet paper to orders of its prebottled margaritas and other cocktails as a free bonus.

"It went viral right after we started doing it," says co-owner Betsy Maher. "It just kind of took off and we got an insane amount of orders from, like, all over the country."

But because Pearl's Social & Billy Club is only able to deliver in Brooklyn, Maher says sales are "flat," even with the bump in notoriety. All of the bar's revenue is going to the staffers or their bills, while Maher and her partner are forgoing their own salaries for the time being. Still, she and her business partner are cautiously optimistic about the future.

Check a bar's Facebook or Instagram if you want to see if they're giving away toilet paper — if they're packaging rolls with their orders, there's a good chance the business will advertise it there.

Face masks

If you're not a medical professional or sick with the coronavirus, the importance of wearing a face mask has been a matter of intense debate. Initially the Surgeon General and other health authorities told the general public not to buy face masks. Now, though, because medical experts have a better sense of just how many carriers are asymptomatic, the consensus seems to be changing: The CDC may soon advise all Americans to wear face masks whenever they're outside, according to a report from The Washington Post.

The FDA and other medical experts still do not recommend that members of the general public wear N95 respirator masks — those are in very high demand in, and primarily needed for, hospitals. It's more likely that most people will be asked to wear disposable surgical masks and reusable cloth ones, which do not form as tight a seal around your face but still provide some protection.

If you're looking for a reusable option, thousands of cloth masks are available for purchase on Etsy, and most of them sell for around $10 each. If you have the necessary craft skills and equipment, you can try to DIY a face mask: How-to videos are available on YouTube.

Numerous fashion houses and apparel-makers have also started producing cotton masks. Since cotton is not a medical-grade fabric, many designers have emphasized that their masks are "nonsurgical." That should be fine for everyday use, however. "You don't need a medical mask," said Dr. David Price, a pulmonologist at New York's Weill Cornell Medical Center, during a recent online seminar.

VIDEO1:3301:33
How to make hand sanitizer during the coronavirus outbreak

Hand sanitizer

Distilleries, breweries, and even a few cannabis producers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico have started producing hand sanitizer.

Much of this production was made possible when the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted permitting and excise tax requirements for distilleries on March 18. That provision was strengthened in the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, which exempts all distillery-made sanitizers produced during 2020 from excise tax. So distilleries can now sell sanitizer at substantially lower prices.

Many of the distillery-produced hand sanitizers highlight that they're produced based on World Health Organization or Center for Disease Control formulations.

Several distilleries are producing disinfectants intended for cleaning surfaces and that are not safe for hands, so pay attention to the fine print. And make sure you're buying something with a formula that's strong enough to disinfect but not going to cause skin irritation.

Tito's Handmade Vodka, which urged people several weeks ago not to use its liquor because it isn't strong enough to disinfect, has started producing a sufficiently potent hand sanitizer.

"We are pooling together all of our liquid resources and initially focusing them to a few points of manufacture around the state where we will be bottling the ethanol based [World Health Organization Formula #1] hand sanitizer," says Robert Cassell, president of the Pennsylvania Distillers Guild and co-founder of New Liberty Distillery in Philadelphia. "This is a massive lift, but by pulling together as an industry we believe we can have an impact on the fight against the coronavirus and safety of everyone."

The American Craft Spirits Association estimates that 75% of craft distilleries plan to produce sanitizer during the outbreak. Some are selling to the general public or including free bottles with delivery orders of liquor, while others are producing exclusively for medical professionals and first responders.

Here's a list of every producer Grow could find in the United States, as of April 2:

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Mexico

New Jersey

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Puerto Rico

Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Virginia

Vermont

Washington

Washington D.C.

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

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