Hand sanitizer is one of the most important products of 2020, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic. Lots of people have bought as much hand sanitizer as they can in order to make sure that they and their families are as safe as possible.
But where exactly did hand sanitizer come from, and when was hand sanitizer invented? Lots of people might think that Purell was the first company to produce any kind of hand sanitizer, but the truth is a little more complicated. Let’s break down the real history of hand sanitizer’s invention.
Origins of the Idea
While hand sanitizer is a relatively new creation in the grand scheme of things, people have known about the antiseptic qualities of alcohol for at least several thousand years. In a nutshell, alcohol is antiseptic/sanitizing because alcoholic molecules can destroy bacterial cell walls when they come into contact with them.
Slather a little alcohol on your hands, and suddenly bacteria have a much harder time staying active and alive. This is why there's lots of historical evidence showing that people used to pour either concentrated rubbing alcohol or alcoholic beverages into open wounds. Even ancient people knew that alcohol was good at decontaminating wounds and preventing infection.
It’s from this classic insight – that alcohol effectively kills germs and bacteria, or at least somehow prevents infections – that led to the first experiments and attempts to create something that could be used as a replacement or substitute for hot water and soap.
The Lupe Hernandez Story
The story of hand sanitizer’s invention gets a little murky at this point in part because of the Lupe Hernandez story.
According to some sources, hand sanitizer was first created in Bakersfield, California. A young Latina nursing student named Lupe Hernandez attempted to come up with a soap and water replacement around 1966 in order to provide a disinfecting alcohol solution quickly and easily for medical professionals.
The rumors about the story first appeared around 2012 after being published in The Guardian, a British newspaper. Supposedly, the story put forward the Hernandez’ breakthrough was that a gel medium like glycerol and water could allow alcohol to be applied more effectively than just mixing it with water.
However, when others investigated the story, they found that there was no patent for hand sanitizer issued to anyone named Lupe Hernandez. While there was another patent for a so-called "rapid hand sanitizer", this was not really the same kind of product and was instead an invention created for the benefit of the foodservice industry.
Ultimately, it seems as though the Lupe Hernandez hand sanitizer story has either been stretched into something false and is ultimately unverifiable. The invention of hand sanitizer is, thus, not credited to Hernandez’ efforts, if they ever truly happened in the first place.
Sterillium in Germany
Hartmann, a German company, has also made claims to have created the first marketable and alcohol-based hand disinfectant since 1965. Indeed, this alcohol-based disinfectant, which is made with 75% alcohol and glycerin, is called Sterillium.
In truth, Sterillium bears only a moderate resemblance to modern-day hand sanitizer. That’s because it doesn’t feature the thickening gel agent used in modern hand sanitizer products. The resulting Sterillium is messy, difficult to use, and is little more than alcohol mixed with water: not much more effective than what people have used for centuries.
Sterillium really didn’t take off because it was just too tough to use in a pinch and because people in the 60s were much less worried about bacterial spreading from hand to hand contact with common areas or objects. In other words, it just wasn’t hand sanitizer’s time!
Purell and Modern Hand Sanitizer
The real story of hand sanitizer’s modern invention starts with Goldie and Jerry Lippman. This married couple first got their start inventing products by creating a waterless hand cleaner in 1946. In order to create the hand cleaner (which removed lots of harsh chemicals like graphite and carbon from workers’ hands at the end of the day), they discovered and formulated and effective mix of several key ingredients including:
- petroleum jelly
- mineral oil
- less than 5% alcohol
This was called “Gojo” and it was an instant hit. They first sold the solution out of the back of their car, but the Lippmans eventually gathered enough cash to start a full company, taking the same name of the original Gojo cleaner clear.
The Lippmans didn’t stop there. After making an industry shift into producing industrial cleaners, 1988 saw Gojo create Purell: the most recognizable hand sanitizer product we know and use today.
By formulating a unique mixture of 70% ethyl alcohol as the active ingredient plus propylene glycol, Purell made a new sanitizing product that mixed the efficacy of regular alcohol sanitation with the convenience of a gel medium. People could use just a small amount of Purell and spread it all between their hands, making the product both convenient and effective.
However, the invention of Purell did not lead to immediate success. Indeed, at the time of the product’s release, lots of people weren’t interested in a hand sanitizer since most folks just used soap and water. Additionally, people weren’t quite as sanitary a few decades ago as they are today.
All this meant that Purell wasn’t released onto the consumer market until 1997: a full nine years after its original invention. Even after entering the market, the product was not initially very successful. That’s because it wasn't fully vetted by the CDC, which still called soap and water is the best sanitizing solution available.
Only in 2002 did CDC revise its collective hand hygiene guidelines. In these new guidelines, they acknowledged the efficacy of alcohol-based sanitizer products and this caused Purell to take its place as a fantastic secondary sanitizing solution if soap and water were not available.
This recommendation, in turn, led to Purell being purchased much more regularly. The boom in consumer confidence that led Gojo to become the number one manufacturer of hand sanitizer products in the world.
Today, there are dozens of different hand sanitizer manufacturers on the market. This does mean that consumers need to be careful about what hand sanitizers they choose. Hand sanitizers can use either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol, and consumers need to be sure that they choose sanitizer products with concentrations of alcohol of 60% or greater.
This plethora of choice is both dazzling and frustrating. Fortunately, Dr. Brite makes some of the best hand sanitizers in the business. In fact, our hand sanitizers are often better than plain Purell. For example, our hand sanitizers use 70% isopropyl alcohol, which is a different type of active alcoholic ingredient that won't dry out your hands nearly as quickly as regular ethyl alcohol.
The story of hand sanitizer’s invention is surprisingly long and winding for such a commonplace product. But we’re ultimately glad it was invented in the end, even if it is, at its core, a simple solution made from mixing alcohol and gel together!
We’d heavily recommend checking out our selection of top-tier hand sanitizers. We have smaller hand sanitizer bottles for personal use, plus larger jugs if you want to take more hand sanitizer to your workplace or office and share it with everyone. Either way, be sure to let us know if you have other questions or check out our other guides on hand sanitizer and what it’s all about.