Why Panic Buying Is Not Actually Helpful

Experts say shopping responsibly is an important part of flattening the curve and helping the world function as normally as possible during the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 Empty Target ShelvesSmith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, protective masks, Tylenol, flour, and so many other items have suddenly become hot commodities as most Americans hunker down at home during the coronavirus pandemic. This has left many people shopping in bulk as they attempt to be prepared not just for a possible two-week quarantine but for months—just in case. You’ve seen the empty shelves at the stores across the country. You’ve also likely seen the pictures of people’s garages stuffed with supplies, so if you find it, you’re going to buy it. After all, if you don’t, someone else will, you’ll be left with nothing, and then what will happen?

Stop right there…and breathe. You’re panicking, and that’s causing you to engage in some aptly termed “panic buying.” While it might not seem like a big deal since you’re just one person, you’re adding to a larger problem and causing serious harm in ways you don’t realize. “Panic buying is an act of selfish madness,” says Paul Hong, PhD, professor of global supply chain management and Asian studies at the University of Toledo. “An African proverb says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ In times of crisis, aim to go far together, not fast alone. We survive together.”

Here’s why experts say that shopping responsibly is an important part of flattening the curve and helping the world function as normally as possible during this impossible time. So, to borrow a phrase, keep calm and carry on—without buying everything in sight.

What causes panic buying?

Panic buying arises out of a perfect storm of conditions, according to Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. “Fear plus uncertainty leads to anxiety because our brains need [the] information to plan for the future. In the absence of information, that uncertainty drives anxiety,” Dr. Brewer explains. “Anxiety is that small fire that suddenly becomes a bonfire and spreads when fueled by social contagion, turning into panic.”

Social media can further fuel this panic—something you’ve probably experienced yourself after seeing picture after picture of empty shelves and reading stories about people who’ve bought thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer. You wonder: What will happen to me if there’s nothing left? While that is a valid question, the larger question is: What will happen to everyone if nothing is left? Well, nothing good, and your individual actions are a contributing factor.

Here’s how to stock up wisely, emergency or not.

Doctors and nurses can’t do their jobs safely and effectively

We can never repay medical professionals for fighting on the front lines against this disease. We can, however, cut the nonsense so that they can stay safe while doing their jobs. There’s currently a severe shortage of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). A recent survey found that many hospitals only have a ten-day supply of masks left. One reason is that regular people have been buying masks in massive quantities—even though they don’t need it. As a result, doctors and nurses are having to ration and reuse these essential items.

This particular form of panic buying is problematic for a few reasons. First, by hoarding masks, these panicked shoppers are likely putting these health professionals’ lives in danger. Doctors and nurses seemingly have a higher chance of becoming infected because of their constant exposure, and they can unwittingly spread COVID-19 to healthy patients and others before they become symptomatic. Finally, if health care workers get sick, they won’t be able to continue to do their jobs. This creates a ripple effect, causing many more people to go without care and potentially lose their lives because there simply aren’t enough caretakers.

In case you were wondering, this is what the N95 stands for in N95 masks.

People can’t get the essentials

Stores Offer Shopping Times For Elderly And Vulnerable Citizens To Protect Against Coronavirus TransmissionMario Tama/Getty Images

Look, not everyone wants a bunker’s worth of toilet paper. Some people just need it because they’ve run out. Panic buying disrupts the supply chain, and, eventually, there’s no availability depending on the specifics of the product, which could last for a while. “It causes a ‘pig in a python’—i.e., a massive demand ‘lump’ flows slowly upstream and can disrupt each stage due to problems matching available capacity with the replenishment volumes ordered by retailers,” says Simon Croom, PhD, professor of supply chain management at the University of San Diego School of Business.

While we’ve all been feeling the effects of this with cleaning products and assorted household items, it can become even more problematic with “specialty” items—like baby formula, over-the-counter medications, and more. “Follow the airplane-safety rule: First take care of yourself and then your neighbors,” Hong says.

If you can’t find your usual cleaning supplies, try these household products that kill coronavirus, according to Consumer Reports.

Certain groups of people suffer more

When there’s a crisis often those who are most vulnerable are put at an even greater risk. “Panic buying disproportionately affects low-resource communities that are already impacted by social barriers such as transportation, proximity to grocery stores, and income,” says Karen Dale, a registered nurse and the market president for AmeriHealth Caritas, Washington, D.C. “[They] do not have the additional funds to stock up on weeks or months worth of food and supplies at one time. Additionally, if shelves are continually empty, repeated trips to the store are challenging and costly when you consider factors like transportation and child care.” As a result, these people are left without the necessary items for survival.

People with chronic illnesses also face unique challenges. Those with diabetes or hypertension need balanced meals, Dale adds. When options in the store are few and far between, they may opt for less-healthy items that could exacerbate their conditions.

Infection spreads

If people can’t get the basics they need at one store (or online), they’ll have to head elsewhere to find it. Visiting multiple places and coming in contact with more people increases their risk of infection, Dale says. This situation can get even worse if stores are forced to restrict purchases. “As stores begin to limit the number of products you can buy at a time, more people are returning frequently and traveling to multiple locations to stock up. This repeated exposure in enclosed public spaces can make social distancing difficult and increases the overall risk,” Dale explains. We flatten the curve by staying home as much as possible, but we can’t do that if we can’t find what we need at our regular shopping spots.

Plus, when people can’t find things like soaps, sanitizers, and disinfectants—we’ve got another problem on our hands. These essential items help to stem the spread of coronavirus, and without them, people may end up unwittingly infecting others. So, maybe put that tenth bottle of hand soap back on the shelf, OK?

Price gouging becomes more prevalent

hand sanitizer Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

In theory, charging more for a much-desired item is simply the basic principle of supply and demand. “Opportunism in supply chains by retailers, manufacturers, and others holding inventories will lead to inflated prices,” Croom says. “After all, price is whatever a customer will pay.”

Just how much is that? A 100-pack of sanitary dust masks that originally sold for $8 ballooned all the way to $200 on Amazon in early March, according to recent data. While attorneys and assorted officials are pushing Amazon, Walmart, and other retailers to crack down on these insane price hikes, it’s still a problem.

By the way, scammers are also using the coronavirus to steal your information.

Counterfeit products invade the marketplace

Criminals don’t take a break during a pandemic—in fact, they ratchet up their schemes to make a quick buck. A massive operation coordinated by Interpol in early March busted a number of groups involved in trafficking counterfeit items. Authorities confiscated 34,000 counterfeit surgical masks as well as 4.4 million units of illicit pharmaceuticals being touted as immunity boosters or treatments for COVID-19, according to Interpol.

On Amazon, in addition to counterfeit surgical masks, you’ll also find counterfeit hand sanitizers, test kits, and anything else that promises the hope and help people desperately want right now. So, how are you contributing to this problem? By depleting the vetted products, you pass along the panic, leaving people vulnerable to scams. Make sure you know these 13 signs an Amazon seller can’t be trusted.

Your own mental health declines

While overbuying may seem like a good way to assuage your fears, it actually often ends up doing the opposite. This can become a bigger and longer-lasting problem for you. “Panic is like seeing something burning and then throwing gasoline instead of water on the fire. It only makes things worse and can set up habits of being anxious in the long run,” explains Dr. Brewer. “Not surprisingly, getting in the habit of being anxious can have long-term consequences, including the development of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and possibly even, make people more susceptible to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Instead of giving in to the panic, Dr. Brewer says, it’s important to set limits, stay calm, and work together with your community to make sure that everyone has enough. You may also want to repeat these phrases that calm anxiety to yourself. Dealing with anxiety, which is at the root of panic buying, can halt negative behaviors and help ensure that we’re not making a challenging situation even worse.

Dawn Yanek
Dawn Yanek is a senior editor at RD.com who covers current events, lifestyle, shopping and entertainment. A former on-air spokesperson and parenting blogger who has appeared on more than 2,500 TV segments, Dawn has likely popped up on your television at some point as an expert or actress. She lives in New York with her husband and their two mind-bogglingly energetic kids.