Nova Scotia·Video

Digby company gets approval from Health Canada to make hand sanitizer

When skin care entrepreneur Eliza Desmarais got the news Tuesday night that Health Canada had approved her Digby, N.S., company to produce hand sanitizer, it came not a moment too soon because the COVID-19 pandemic has put her in a financial squeeze.

Sohma Naturals sells niche creams, but it's about to hit the market with urgently needed hand sanitizer

Eliza Desmarais has a background in chemistry and her lab, Sohma Naturals, is approved by Health Canada. (Submitted by Eliza Desmarais)

When skin care entrepreneur Eliza Desmarais got the news Tuesday night that Health Canada had approved her Digby, N.S., company to produce hand sanitizer, it came not a moment too soon.

Like so many Canadians, the COVID-19 pandemic has put her in a financial squeeze. A single mother of a toddler, her company, Sohma Naturals, has seen sales of its eczema cream and diaper balm slump. On top of that, she's no longer able to provide massage therapy, which is her part-time job.

"I was flipping out last night when I got the licence," said Desmarais.

Depending on the ingredients, Health Canada classifies hand sanitizers as natural health products or non-prescription drugs. It authorizes the products that can be sold in Canada.

Desmarais has already received the first shipment of 20-litre buckets of 99 per cent isopropyl alcohol, the in-demand ingredient that kills viruses such as the novel coronovirus.

Eliza Desmarais's company recently received approval from Health Canada to produce hand sanitizer for the COVID-19 fight. The CBC's Elizabeth Chiu reports. 1:58

Her hand sanitizer will be 65 per cent alcohol-based, which exceeds the 60 per cent minimum recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sohma's product is in a spray-form, instead of a gel. To counter the drying effect of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, Desmarais's formulation uses gentle ingredients found in baby shampoos, such as panthenol and derivatives of coconut oil.

The first people to try out her test batch of hand sanitizer were the staff at the local post office.

"They already said it's very soothing and silky on their hands, so hopefully we're helping with what everyone is complaining about, the drying and cracking," she said.

Desmarais studied chemistry and engineering for two years at Dalhousie University in Halifax before switching to massage therapy. She's received cosmetic formulation training through an accredited college in the U.K. She's also achieved certification from Health Canada in quality assurance reporting and good manufacturing practices.

Desmarais scoured the internet to source several buckets of rubbing alcohol, a key ingredient in making hand sanitizer. (Submitted by Eliza Desmarais)

Her company, which she operates with her mother, officially launched two years ago.

"We've definitely scaled up and yeah, definitely, we're very proud of where we've come this far," she said.

Desmarais had to do a lengthy internet search to source her ingredients from across Canada. She is waiting for the last shipments to arrive before starting commercial production. She works solo in her small-batch lab and hopes to produce 700 four-ounce bottles by the end of next week. They will retail for approximately $10 each.

Desmarais was always interested in natural skin care, but it started turning into a new career path when she became pregnant with her daughter, Zoe. (Submitted by Eliza Desmarais)

"We're not trying to take advantage of the public," she said, referring to the insatiable demand for hand sanitizers and the price gouging that's ensued.

The hand sanitizer will be sold initially on her website. She also plans to contact other businesses about carrying it.

Experts have expressed alarm at the number of homemade hand sanitizer recipes online. There are so many concoctions, comedian Conan O'Brien has even spoofed it.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.