Then vs. Now: The Life-Saving History of Hand Sanitizer

Alcohol has been used as a disinfectant for centuries.

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Prior to the 19th century, the concept of hand sanitizer would have been baffling. Up until then, the purpose of handwashing was to clean off visible grime. Germ theory—the idea that humans share the earth with tiny microorganisms that can sometimes be harmful and spread diseases—didn’t arise until the late 19th century, and would forever change how humans think about health.

Hand sanitizer is essentially a combination of some type of alcohol (such as ethyl alcohol or isopropyl) mixed with other moisturizing, gel-like ingredients (such as aloe or glycerol). Other ingredients like dyes and fragrances can also be added.

While alcohol has long been used as an antiseptic (a substance that prevents the growth of disease-causing germs), hand sanitizer is a fairly new invention, dating back just a handful of decades.

Alcohol: The Original Hand Sanitizer

Even in ancient and medieval times, many cultures around the world used alcohol to disinfect wounds. It was recommended by famous early doctors like Galen in ancient Greece, and Guy de Chauliac in 14th-century France. Ancient Egyptians even used it to treat eye infections—which admittedly sounds a bit painful.

Alcohol as an antiseptic didn’t get scientific backing until 1875, when L. Buchholtz tested the antimicrobial activity of ethanol. It turns out, alcohol can eliminate germs by targeting and weakening the cell wall of bacteria, a process known as cell lysis.

By the 1880s, alcohol was commonly used by surgeons to disinfect the skin before performing operations, as well as to disinfect the operation area on the patient. It became a staple of health care: By 1948, a survey found that 64 percent of hospitals in the United States used ethanol for skin disinfection, according to the book Disinfection, Sterilization, and Preservation edited by Seymour Stanton Block.

But this was not the hand sanitizer you know today. This was pure alcohol, and as you can probably imagine, it was harsh on skin, leaving the hands dry and chapped. It got the job done, but the door was open for improvements.

The Introduction of Hand Sanitizer

In Akron, Ohio, a possible solution was already being invented. Husband and wife Jerry and Goldie Lippman noticed that the men who worked in Goldie’s rubber factory were complaining of irritated hands at the ends of their shifts, where they frequently disinfected their hands in harsh chemicals. As a solution, they developed an alcoholic mixture that was gentler on skin, and they sold them out of repurposed pickle jars in Akron beginning in 1946. They called the product GOJO Hand Cleaner.

In 1952, Jerry developed the portion-control dispenser that you can now find on the walls of hospitals, schools, airports, and more. This was a simple solution after he noticed workers using excessive amounts of the products.

But a big milestone for hand sanitizer’s history was 1988, when the GOJO company released PURELL Hand Sanitizer. It was originally sold only to places like hospitals, schools, and restaurant workers—you couldn’t buy it at a department store for your own home.

At this point, hand sanitizer was a gelled mixture containing between 60 and 70 percent ethyl alcohol or isopropanol. The gel not only helped moisturize hands, but the consistency made it easy to apply to the hands.

Hand Sanitizer Goes ~Viral~

In 1997, PURELL released hand sanitizer to the public, and it revolutionized personal hygiene habits. Within a decade, Americans were spending around $98 million each year on the convenient product, according to a 2008 report by CNN.

The first decade of the 21st century was a love affair with hand sanitizer. Even Bath and Body Works joined the game, offering adorable pocket-sized hand sanitizers in bright colors and bold scents. Every mom had one in her purse, and every middle schooler had one in their trapper keeper.

Even the Oval Office embraced hand sanitizer: In Barack Obama’s book Audacity of Hope, he tells the story of meeting George W. Bush for the first time in the White House in 2005. After shaking hands, President Bush allegedly pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer and offered some to then-Senator Obama, saying, “Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.”

Hand Sanitizer Today

Hand sanitizer is a consistent part of many people’s hygiene routines, but not surprisingly, sanitizer use seems to spike during infectious outbreaks—notably during the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic and the 2019-20 COVID-19 pandemic. When the COVID-19 pandemic first erupted in the United States, hand sanitizer was one of the first things to go missing from shelves as families and businesses nervously stocked up on the product. A recipe to make homemade hand sanitizer from aloe vera and isopropyl alcohol even went viral on social media, until stores ran out of those ingredients as well.

Despite this trend, public health experts still recommend using hand sanitizer as a backup, since soap and water is still the most effective way to fight infectious germs. That’s because while hand sanitizer only reduces the amount of some types of germs, soap and water reduces the amount of all types of germs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The moral of the story: Got a sink around? Wash your hands. Away from a sink? Use hand sanitizer. Learn more here about how to use hand sanitizer properly, and find out the most common handwashing mistakes here.