Ever wondered where hand sanitizers came from or who invented it? Well, let’s dive into history and learn about the origin of this life-saving product. Given that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, there has been a drastic spike in the purchase of hand sanitizers globally, so let’s see where it all began.
The hand sanitizer is a gel-like substance where a type of alcohol - usually ethyl alcohol or propanol, is used along with a gel - either aloe vera or glycerol. The purpose of the hand sanitizer is to act as a disinfectant and control the spread of germs.
The history of hand sanitizers dates back to just a few decades ago. Until the 19th century, hand washing was the norm. People washed their hands to get rid of visible grime. It wasn’t until later in that century, where the Germ Theory was proposed. The Germ Theory states that humans share the earth with tiny micro-organisms that can sometimes be harmful to us and spread diseases among our species. When this theory gained scientific backing, it became increasingly important to disinfect the human body in various circumstances.
Now, if we go back a few centuries to ancient medieval times, it was a known fact that alcohol was used to disinfect wounds and even treat eye infections - as painful as that sounds! This was practiced in countries like Greece, France, Egypt, and many other cultures. Galen in ancient Greece and Guy de Chauliac in France were some of the first known doctors to use alcohol as a disinfectant.
The fact that alcohol killed bacteria was scientifically tested much later in 1875 by L. Buchholtz. He studied the antimicrobial activity of ethanol and proved that alcohol can kill germs by targeting and weakening the cell walls of bacteria. By the 1880s doctors used alcohol to disinfect the skin before operations as well as to disinfect their own hands, as we do with sanitizers today.
By 1948, over half of US hospitals began to use ethanol to disinfect hands. However, the excessive amount of alcohol content was too harsh on their skin, leaving their hands dry and chapped. Thus came the invention of the hand sanitiser as we know it today. The exact origin of the hand sanitizer is under speculation, but here are a few popular ones.
One story originates in Bakersfield, California in 1966, where a young nursing student named Lupe Hernandez developed a way to use alcohol as a disinfectant in a gel-like form. He reportedly said that these could be used in the absence of soap and water.
Although this version of the origin of hand sanitizers gained a lot of traction, another source gives credit to Jerry and Goldie Lippman, a couple running a rubber factory in Akron, Ohio. They noticed their workers complaining about irritation on their hands at the end of the day. The workers used harsh chemicals to disinfect their hands after their shift and so the couple came up with a less harsh mixture of alcohol and began selling them out of repurposed pickle jars. This happened in 1946 and the product was called GOJO Hand Cleaner.
In 1952, the husband Jerry apparently developed the dispenser that we see today in hospitals and schools. In 1988, the GOJO company released a marketable hand cleaner called Purell. Purell was initially not available to the general public but sold to hospitals, schools, and restaurants.
Then, there was also Sterillium, a marketable hand sanitizer created by the German company Hartmann, which hit the European shelves around 1965. They claim that they were the first to come up with the idea.
By 1988, about 60-70% of ethanol or isopropanol was mixed with a gel-like substance, making it less harsh on the hands and easy to apply. The alcohol targeted the killing of germs while the gel acted as a moisturiser.
1997 was when the hand sanitizer was available to the masses. The bottles came in different shapes and sizes, and the gel itself came in various scents and colors, adding a fashionable element to it. Although many people knew that the use of hand sanitizers could help prevent catching a cold or fever, it wasn’t until the H1N1 pandemic and now during the COVID-19 pandemic that the sale of hand sanitizers boomed in the general market.
Today, we all know that the regular use of hand sanitizers can help prevent the catching and spreading of diseases. So, although there might be trouble in pointing out the exact inventor of the hand santizer, it has proved to be an incredibly effective product in keeping us safe and free from illnesses.