The Fascinating History and Evolution of the Hand Sanitizer

Jun 27, 2024

In the realm of public health and personal hygiene, hand sanitizer has emerged as a crucial tool in combating the spread of infectious diseases. Its convenience and efficacy in killing germs have made it a staple in healthcare settings, offices, schools, and homes worldwide. While the concept of hand hygiene is centuries old, the development of hand sanitizer as we know it today—a potent combination of isopropyl alcohol or ethanol, moisturizers, and sometimes scents—represents a convergence of science and necessity. This antiseptic concoction not only offers a quick disinfecting solution when soap and water are not readily available but has also played a pivotal role in infection control and handwashing practices, underlining its importance in maintaining public health.

This article delves into the fascinating history and evolution of hand sanitizer, tracing its origins from a simple idea to an indispensable part of daily hygiene routines. From its initial formulation to the innovative hand sanitizer gel and hand sanitizer dispenser systems available today, we explore how the ingredients and their effectiveness have evolved over the decades. The journey of hand sanitizer mirrors advancements in scientific understanding and shifts in societal attitudes towards hygiene and health. Additionally, the article examines the broader impact of hand sanitizer on society, including its role in enhancing hand hygiene and its implications for public health. Through this exploration, we gain insights into how this humble product has become a symbol of the global fight against germs and diseases, highlighting its significance in our lives.

Origins of Hand Sanitizers

Early Antiseptic Uses

The concept of antisepsis, pivotal to the development of hand sanitizers, was significantly advanced by Joseph Lister in the 1860s. Lister, influenced by the germ theory proposed by Louis Pasteur, implemented antiseptic techniques in surgical practices using carbolic acid to prevent infections in wounds 1 2. This practice laid the groundwork for using chemical agents to eliminate germs, a principle central to the function of hand sanitizers.

Lupe Hernandez's Contribution

In 1966, Lupe Hernandez, a nursing student in Bakersfield, California, reportedly combined alcohol with gel to create a cleansing agent effective when soap and water were unavailable 3 4. While the story of Hernandez's invention has been widely circulated, detailed verification and patent records for this invention remain elusive 5. The narrative varies, with some sources referring to Hernandez as a woman and others as a man, adding to the complexities of this historical account 3 4 5.

Development in Europe

Parallel to developments in the United States, Europe saw significant advancements in hand hygiene products. In 1965, the German company Hartmann developed Sterillium, which is considered the first marketable alcohol-based hand disinfectant in Europe. This product featured a formulation of glycerin and 75% alcohol, establishing a new standard for hand hygiene effectiveness in medical and public health practices 6.

These historical insights not only highlight the evolution of hand sanitizers from simple antiseptic practices but also underscore the complexities and regional variations in the development of these essential hygiene products.

Evolution Over the Decades

Adoption in Medical Settings

The adoption of hand sanitizer in medical settings marked a significant milestone in the evolution of infection control practices. By the early 2000s, hospitals globally had begun to implement widespread use of hand sanitizer dispensers throughout their facilities. This practice was further endorsed in 2002 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its hand hygiene guidelines, recommending alcohol-based hand sanitizers as a viable alternative to soap and water for both healthcare personnel and the general public 6. The World Health Organization (WHO) also emphasized this shift in 2009, advocating for the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, particularly in resource-poor settings with limited access to clean water 6.

Commercial Availability

The late 1990s saw the entry of major brands like Purell and GermX into the consumer market, but it wasn't until the following decade that hand sanitizer products began to see a significant rise in sales. This surge was influenced by growing public awareness and the endorsement of hand sanitizers by health experts as an effective germ-fighting tool. By 2020, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for hand sanitizers reached unprecedented levels, leading to innovations and increased production in the industry. The global market for hand sanitizer products is projected to exceed $2.1 billion by 2027 6.

Role During Pandemics

Hand sanitizers have played a crucial role during various pandemics, particularly highlighted during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020. The H1N1 outbreak led to the first significant spike in consumer sales of hand sanitizers, which increased by 70% in the U.S. during that period 6. The COVID-19 pandemic further underscored the importance of hand hygiene, with hand sanitizers becoming a central component of public health efforts to reduce virus transmission. This has resulted in a sustained increase in both the production and use of hand sanitizers globally 7.

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Ingredients and Their Effectiveness

Alcohol-Based vs. Alcohol-Free

Hand sanitizers are primarily categorized into alcohol-based and alcohol-free types, each with distinct ingredients and mechanisms for killing germs. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers typically contain ethanol, ethyl alcohol, isopropanol, or 2-propanol, recognized for their antiseptic properties that effectively eliminate bacteria and germs on hands 8. For instance, Purell, a widely trusted brand in commercial settings, contains 70% Ethyl Alcohol, aligning with the recommendations from health authorities like the CDC and WHO, which advise using sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol to ensure over 99.9% of germs are killed 8 9.

On the contrary, alcohol-free hand sanitizers generally feature Benzalkonium Chloride (BZK) as the active ingredient. BZK is known for its antibacterial properties, capable of killing 99.9% of germs within 15 seconds in products like Avant's Alcohol-Free Foaming Instant Hand Sanitizer 9. However, the effectiveness of BZK against a broader range of viruses is debated, with studies suggesting it is less effective against certain strains like norovirus compared to its alcohol-based counterparts 10.

WHO Recommended Formulations

The World Health Organization (WHO) has played a pivotal role in standardizing the formulations of hand sanitizers, particularly emphasizing the use of alcohol-based types due to their broad-spectrum microbicidal activity and fast-acting properties. WHO recommends two specific formulations for local production: Formulation I, which consists of ethanol 80% v/v, glycerol 1.45% v/v, and hydrogen peroxide 0.125% v/v, and Formulation II, which includes isopropyl alcohol 75% v/v, glycerol 1.45% v/v, and hydrogen peroxide 0.125% v/v 11. These formulations are designed to maximize efficacy while considering economic and safety factors, making them suitable for use in various settings, including healthcare and community environments.

The effectiveness of these WHO-recommended handrub formulations has been validated through rigorous testing according to European Norms (EN) standards, ensuring their reliability for both hygienic hand antisepsis and pre-surgical hand preparation 11.

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Impact on Society and Health

Usage in Hospitals

Hand sanitizers have become integral to promoting hand hygiene and preventing the spread of infections within healthcare facilities. In hospitals, where patients are particularly vulnerable to infections, maintaining hand hygiene is crucial. Studies indicate that up to 10% of patients admitted to hospitals may acquire an infection during their stay 12. The widespread adoption of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, containing at least 60% alcohol, has been pivotal in reducing the transmission of infections and enhancing patient outcomes 12. Hospitals are encouraged to follow clear guidelines for the use of hand sanitizers, ensuring their effective and safe application in healthcare settings 12.

Public Adoption

The public's adoption of hand sanitizers has significantly increased, particularly highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS) were recommended by the World Health Organization as an essential tool for infection control, leading to their widespread use in various settings beyond healthcare, including homes, workplaces, and public spaces 13. The convenience and effectiveness of hand sanitizers have fostered a global culture of hand hygiene, contributing to a decrease in the transmission of infectious diseases 13.

Impact During COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hand sanitizers played a critical role in controlling the spread of the virus. The sudden surge in demand led to increased production and innovation within the hand sanitizer industry. Notably, the use of hand sanitizers became a common public health practice, supported by health authorities worldwide as a primary measure to reduce viral transmission 14. The pandemic has not only highlighted the effectiveness of hand sanitizers but also prompted a long-term behavioral shift towards more rigorous hand hygiene practices among the general population 14.

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The journey of hand sanitizer from a nascent concept to an essential public health tool reflects not just advancements in hygiene and medicine but also a heightened collective understanding of infection control. Throughout this article, we have traced the evolution of hand sanitizers, examining their origins, widespread adoption in medical settings, and significant impact during pandemics. These developments have underscored the critical role that hand sanitizers play in promoting health and well-being, fortifying their position as an indispensable ally in the global fight against infectious diseases.

As we consider the broader implications of hand sanitizer on society and health, it becomes clear that maintaining rigorous hand hygiene practices is more crucial than ever. In this relentless pursuit of health and safety, SoPure emerges as a key player, offering innovative solutions that align with the highest standards of efficacy and quality. For those committed to elevating their hand hygiene practices, explore SoPure Products Canada's Eco-Friendly Sanitizer Collection at Together, we can continue to safeguard our communities and navigate the challenges of public health with confidence and care.


1. Who is credited with the invention of hand sanitizer?
Lupe Hernandez is recognized as the pioneering inventor of hand sanitizer. This innovation allowed for the creation of a gel-based alcohol solution that provided a way to clean hands without the need for soap and water.

2. How did PURELL get its name?
The name PURELL was chosen because it reflects not just the functional speed of the product, but more importantly, how it makes users feel. This decision was made after careful consideration by a small dedicated team.

3. What products does GOJO Industries produce?
GOJO Industries specializes in developing and distributing skin health and hygiene solutions, primarily for settings outside of the home.

4. Is it safe to use hand sanitizer after its expiration date?
Using hand sanitizer past its expiration date is generally safe, particularly if the bottle has remained unopened. Its effectiveness is retained if it still smells strongly of alcohol and evaporates quickly upon application.


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