Hand sanitizer has become a hot topic due to the pandemic of Covid-19. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggest when it comes to preventing the spread of coronavirus, “if soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.” Any sanitizers between 60% and 95% work best.
The primary ingredient in hand sanitizer is indeed alcohol. Most hand sanitizers contain anywhere from the 60% to 95% isopropyl or ethyl alcohol mixed with water and gels like glycol and glycerin in order to prevent drying out your skin. The resulting product is typically sold in a hand gel or liquid spray under brand names such as Purell or GermX.
While alcohol has been used as an antiseptic since the late 1800’s, the exact origins of hand sanitizer are up for debate.
One version of the story suggests it was Lupe Hernandez, a nursing student from Bakersfield, California in 1966. Some claim him as the inventor of hand sanitizer after combining alcohol and gel for use by doctors. It was most used in situations where they didn’t have time to access soap and warm water before treating patients.
However, a recent study by Smithsonian Institution historian Joyce Bedi was unable to turn up any trace of Hernandez. There was also no evidence of a U.S. patent for hand sanitizer under that name from the 1960s.
There’s also Sterillium. The German company Hartmann claims Sterillium was the world’s first marketable alcohol-based hand disinfectant when it hit European shelves in 1965. It’s made with glycerin and 75% alcohol.
Still, others trace modern hand sanitizer back to Goldie and Jerry Lippman. They were a married couple that developed a waterless hand cleaner in 1946 for rubber plant workers. These workers previously used harsh chemicals like kerosene and benzene to remove graphite and carbon black from their hands at the end of their shifts. The product, which they called Gojo (a combination of their names) is a mix of petroleum jelly, mineral oil and less than 5% alcohol that’s still used today by auto mechanics and other laborers to clean off substances like grease and oil.
The Lippmans mixed their first batches of Gojo in a washing machine in the basement of Goldie’s parents’ Akron, Ohio home. The couple was living there at the time, according to “The New Yorker.” They put the resulting product in pickle jars and sold it out of the trunk of their car.
Over the following decades, Gojo continued selling their products as industrial cleaners. Then, in 1988, the company invented the hand gel Purell, which consists of 70% ethyl alcohol as its primary ingredient. It also contains propylene glycol. While Purell is now the world’s best-selling hand sanitizer, it took some time for stores to carry the product that most customers weren’t really seeking out for. As such, Gojo did not release Purell onto the consumer market until 1997. Now it is flying off the shelves due to Covid-19.
Learn more here about common hand sanitizer ingredients.