Hand sanitizer has rapidly become one of the most important products of 2020 (and probably beyond) because of the coronavirus pandemic. The hand-cleaning solution has been around for some time, but lots of people now wonder when hand sanitizer was invented and who was responsible. Surprisingly, there are a few conflicting stories on this point. Let’s get to the bottom of the history of hand sanitizer.
Lupe Hernandez – The Inventor of Hand Sanitizer?
At this point, the most widely circulated story surrounding the invention of hand sanitizer revolves around Lupe Hernandez: a young Latina nursing student who was studying in Bakersfield, California in 1966. According to the story, she was looking for a way to deliver disinfecting alcohol in an easy-to-apply gel form. She realized before everyone else that ethyl alcohol delivered through gel via dispensers could serve as a quick replacement for soap and water when the others are not easy to access.
Naturally, Lupe began registering the patent for hand sanitizer immediately when she figured out the idea had merit.
However, this story breaks down almost immediately whenever someone starts to dig into the details. The tale of Lupe Hernandez, the industrious nursing student, originally cropped up in the British newspaper The Guardian. The article describing the story was published in 2012.
Yet a little investigation into US patents finds no trace of Hernandez or hand sanitizer inventions around that time. Interestingly, there are patents for even earlier inventions that could, with a little squinting, fit the bill of an early prototype for the hand sanitizer we all know and use today. For instance, Wendell Tisdale and Ira Williams applied for a patent for a disinfectant in 1934 to prevent the growth of microbes and fungi.
Similarly, William C. Moore applied for a patent in 1936 for an alcoholic composition “for application to the human skin”. The patent specifically refers to “alcogels”, which sounds suspiciously familiar to the gel-based hand sanitizer of the modern era.
Or look at Lucas Kyrides, who applied for a patent in 1941 for a type of germicide with compounds that are suitable, “especially for washing hands and skin”.
But there’s nothing in the US patent office for anyone by the name of Hernandez, at least when it comes to hand sanitizers or other sterilization products. Furthermore, there aren’t any patent-based developments to be found in the hand sanitizer sphere in the 1960s at all.
To make things worse, Lupe isn't exclusively a female name. It's possible that the Hernandez of the story was actually a male nursing student. All this casts severe doubt on the Hernandez nursing story.
Other hand sanitizer or cleanliness product manufacturers have their own stories about the history of their products. Some of them include claims to the fame of inventing the first hand sanitizer.
For instance, Jerome and Goldie Lippman founded GOJO in 1946. Their famous GOJO Hand Cleaner is industrial and citrus-smelling, and it’s primarily used as a cleaner in auto repair shops and places where grease needs to be cleaned just as often as regular germs.
However, 1988 saw the company innovating in order to stay relevant when the materials used to create their main product became more expensive. They came up with an isopropyl hand sanitizer, mixed with several antimicrobial agents and chemicals to make the solution gentle to the skin.
You probably know the name of this sanitizing solution: Purell, which finally hit the market in 1998. The gel everyone knows today features a thickening agent to create the viscous texture that’s so memorable. In fact, it’s this texture that allows modern hand sanitizer to be spread between both hands without using too much of the bottle for every application.
The CDC only published how effective alcohol-based sanitizers could be in 2002: several years after consumers could get their hands on the miniature bottles. Even after the invention hit the market, it wasn’t until 2005 that the United States Army began adopting the use of Purell for its armed forces. This was the point when it became a truly popular consumer product; after all, if the U.S. Army uses it, it has to be good!
These days, Purell as a brand name now belongs to GOJO, but only after a round of selling it to other companies like Johnson & Johnson 2006 and buying it back later.
The History of Hand Cleaning and Sanitizing
Overall, it seems that the truth of who created the first sanitizer will remain murky, at least for the time being. GOJO and Purell have a good claim to fame, but there may yet be more truth to the Hernandez story that hasn’t been uncovered.
However, hand sanitizer was likely going to be invented sooner or later. Whether it happened in the 1960s or the 1980s, the centuries prior saw several advances in hygiene and medical science.
We take for granted that you should wash your hands if you want to maintain a clean hospital environment. We’re also told to wash our hands on a daily basis and lessen the likelihood of catching or spreading a cold. But this wasn’t always so.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1846 that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis of Hungary first noticed that there was a discrepancy in how many women in the medical ward of his hospital would die during childbirth from fever. Women in one medical ward would die at a higher rate after catching fever than women in a midwife-run ward.
Semmelweis noted that some healthcare workers or medical students would stop by the maternity ward after performing autopsies or other medical procedures. He theorized that such actions transferred necrotic or, as he called them, “cadaverous” particles from their hands to the already-weakened women, many of whom may have had open wounds.
Semmelweis decided to put his hand washing theory to the test, mandating that all his medical professionals wash their hands with chlorine. Death rates fell dramatically almost immediately. Despite this success, other European doctors did not believe that handwashing was the cause of the sudden mortality drop. They attributed the miracle to other sources, some spiritual and some more outlandish medical theories.
Still, there was a steady uptake in people practicing handwashing as a means to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, particularly in hospitals that were ahead of the curve. But the general population never received mandates to wash their hands, nor did they receive education on the subject, for quite some time after this initial discovery.
Because of all this doubt, it wasn’t until a century later, in the 1980s, when the US CDC finally proved that handwashing, especially with a good soap and water, was an effective deterrent against the spread of infection. They began mandating hand washing for doctors and other medical personnel and published hygiene guidelines that people have followed ever since.
Where does hand sanitizing fit in?
While soap and water were known as cleaning agents since antiquity (although largely for clean clothes and other surfaces instead of germs from your hands), 1875 was the year when Leonid Bucholz discovered the antiseptic properties of ethanol. While studying at the University of Tartu in Estonia, he published a paper detailing this discovery. It should be noted that alcoholic beverages like wine and whiskey had been used as light medicinal products in the past, though the connection between how they helped their patients was tenuously understood at best.
Products like hand sanitizer, which use one type of alcohol or another as their active ingredient, keep your hands clean through a different process than soap and water, which helped the confusion.
Later, in 1911, researchers discovered that 70% ethanol solutions were extremely effective at killing many types of bacteria and germs. Isopropyl alcohol was discovered to be even more effective than ethanol in 1936, right before World War II.
In the 40s, the Lippman’s of GOJO fame began their company and started selling their first grease-and-dirt-cleaning solutions. The rest, whether it’s true or not, is history.
Ultimately, we may never know the true origins of hand sanitizer. But it’s clear that the invention of the solution was an inevitability and relied on the discoveries and theories of medical minds in the past. Would hand sanitizer have been as successful, for instance, if Dr. Semmelweis hadn’t made the connection between germs and handwashing? We may never know.
But thankfully, hand hygiene sanitizer is here to stay. Even better, our understanding of hand sanitizer is improving every year. These days, comfortable and effective hand sanitizers, like Green Goo’s patented formula, are excellent products to keep your hands safe and prevent the spread of germs.