The history of hand sanitizer—how the coronavirus staple went from mechanic shops to consumer shelves

How hand sanitizer sales spike during pandemics
How hand sanitizer sales spike during pandemics

Panic buying over the coronavirus pandemic has led to a variety of household products flying off the shelves at your local grocery store. 

That includes staples, like bread and toilet paper, as well as one product that's only been commercially available for a few decades, but which many people clearly now view as a necessity: hand sanitizer.

Purchases of the disinfecting gel have skyrocketed in the U.S. ever since the first case of COVID-19 hit the country. During the last week of February, a period that saw the first American death from COVID-19, hand sanitizer sales in the U.S. were up by 300% compared to the same week a year earlier, according to market research from Nielsen.

The following week, the first week of March, hand sanitizer sales shot up by 470% compared to the same week a year earlier, Nielsen tells CNBC Make It. That's in an industry that already sees more than $200 million in annual sales of hand sanitizer products in the U.S., according to Nielsen.

Supermarkets and pharmacies across the country have sold out of hand sanitizer, leaving only empty shelves where disinfectant products would normally be found. 

With some consumers even hoarding hand sanitizer amid the shortage, online prices for the products soared, leading law enforcement officials in many states to threaten prosecution for price-gouging against third-party sellers on sites like Walmart and Amazon (where an 8-ounce bottle of Purell that would normally cost $2.50 was briefly on sale for $90 before being removed by Amazon in early March).

What's more, the run on hand sanitizer also came as health officials across the country have remained adamant that the best way for people to combat the spread of potentially dangerous germs is simply through diligent hand-washing with soap and water. (For what it's worth, the U.S. soap industry is worth more than $2 billion per year. Sales of hand soap in the U.S. have jumped by "double-digit" percentage points during the coronavirus pandemic, but nowhere near the increase of hand sanitizer sales, according to Nielsen's research.)

So, what's all the fuss about?

The history of hand sanitizer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do note that, 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." 

And indeed, that is the primary ingredient in hand sanitizer: alcohol. Most hand sanitizers contain anywhere from 60% to 95% isopropyl or ethyl alcohol mixed with water and gels like glycol and glycerin in order to prevent drying out users' skin. The resulting product is typicall sold in a hand gel or liquid spray under brand names such as Purell or GermX.

But while alcohol has been in use as an antiseptic since the late-1800s least, the exact origins of hand sanitizer are up for debate. 

One version of the story points to Lupe Hernandez, a nursing student in Bakersfield, California in 1966, as the inventor of hand sanitizer after combining alcohol and gel for use by doctors in situations where they don't have time to access soap and warm water before treating patients.

However, a recent investigation by the Smithsonian Institution historian Joyce Bedi was unable to turn up any trace of Hernandez, or any evidence of a U.S. patent for hand sanitizer under that name from the 1960s.

There's also Sterillium, which the German company Hartmann claims 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, the married couple that developed a waterless hand cleaner in 1946 for rubber plant workers who 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 portmanteau 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 workers to clean off substances like grease and oil.

The Lippman's mixed their first batches of Gojo in a washing machine in the basement of Goldie's parents' Akron, Ohio home, where the couple was living 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 ensuing 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, along with 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 everyday customers weren't really asking for. As such, Gojo did not release Purell onto the consumer market until 1997.

Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

That same year, Vi-Jon Industries followed Gojo's lead by introducing GermX, which is now the second best-selling hand sanitizer in America, after Purell, according to Nielsen.

It wasn't a thing at first

Despite Purell and GermX entering the consumer market in the late-1990s, hand sanitizer sales did not start taking off until the 2000s. First of all, it wasn't until 2002 that the CDC first revised its hand hygiene guidelines to recommend alcohol-based hand sanitizer as a possible alternative for both health care personnel and the average person looking to eliminate germs when soap and warm water are not available, or as a time-saving solution.

"Alcohol-based hand rubs take less time to use than traditional hand washing," the CDC wrote in 2002. "In an eight-hour shift, an estimated one hour of an ICU nurse's time will be saved by using an alcohol-based handrub."

Throughout the 2000s, hospitals around the world started the widespread practice of placing hand sanitizer pumps throughout medical facilities.

And in 2009, the World Health Organization followed suit, when Swiss epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert Dr. Didier Pittet wrote new WHO guidelines promoting the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer among health care professionals, especially those in resource-poor countries with limited access to clean water.

That year also happens to be when consumer sales of hand sanitizer first spiked in the wake of the H1N1 swine flu that infected more than 60 million people just in the U.S., killing an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people around the world.

The combination of consumers' fears of contracting H1N1 and health experts increasingly recommending alcohol-based hand sanitizers as an option to fight the spread of germs in recent years likely contributed to the first significant spike in hand sanitizer sales, which surged by 70% during that period in the U.S., according to Nielsen's Executive Vice President of U.S. Manufacturer Client Success, Laura McCullough.

"When we had the H1N1 virus we saw a big spike with hand sanitizers…," McCullough tells CNBC Make It. "Since then, we've seen a very steady continued growth and progression of the category as consumers have continued to adopt [hand sanitizer]."

Today, U.S. consumers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on hand sanitizer each year. Globally, the market for hand sanitizer products could top $2.1 billion by 2027, according to one estimate by market research firm Fior Markets, which was released on Thursday and notes the lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the market's growth potential.

For the average American consumer, who hopefully doesn't have to worry about finding clean water and soap, and isn't facing a time crunch that an emergency room doctor might have to deal with, hand sanitizer is an attractive option, especially now, for on-the-go situations where they might not be able to duck into a bathroom to wash their hands.

"For example, you're out and about in New York City, you're using a Port-a-Potty, or maybe you're somewhere where you just don't have a chance to wash your hands. Hand sanitizer is a good alternative for hand-washing in those situations," Dr. Anjali Bharati, an emergency medicine physician at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, tells CNBC Make It.

An FDA warning

Even hand sanitizer isn't without some controversy, though. As Americans have scoured store shelves in search of hand sanitizer and other disinfectants in recent weeks, Purell-maker Gojo has come under fire from health officials.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a letter warning Gojo against making any unsubstantiated health claims about the company's hand sanitizer products. The FDA cited various Purell advertisements claiming the product kills "99.9 percent of illness-causing germs" and touting Purell as being effective in preventing dangerous diseases such as the flu, ebola, norovirus and others.

"However, FDA is currently not aware of any adequate and well-controlled studies demonstrating that killing or decreasing the number of bacteria or viruses on the skin by a certain magnitude produces a corresponding clinical reduction in infection or disease caused by such bacteria or virus," the FDA wrote in its letter.

Meanwhile, Gojo is also currently facing two recent class action lawsuits filed by consumers who claim the company has made "misleading claims" about Purell's ability to kill nearly 100% of germs and prevent certain diseases. 

GOJO president and CEO Carey Jaros has said in a statement that the company stands behind its products. And in response to the FDA's letter, the company issued a statement noting that it has started "updating relevant website and other digital content as directed by the FDA and are taking steps to prevent a recurrence."

Still, the FDA's concerns don't seem to have put a damper on consumers' desire for more hand sanitizer as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread. 

Stores across the country continue to report shortages of the products, leading many concerned people to look for ways to make their own homemade versions. A quick online search will produce countless examples of DIY YouTube videos and websites offering instructions to do just that (here's CNBC's guide), while the alcohol brand Tito's Homemade Vodka had to issue a statement in early-March noting that its vodka should not be used as the key component in any homemade hand sanitizers (Tito's vodka contains 40% alcohol, which is below the CDC's recommended threshold).

At the same time, other alcohol producers such as Anheuser-Busch and Pernod Ricard have pivoted to start producing hand sanitizer to donate to hospitals and government health agencies amid the shortage. New York State is using prison laborers to make its own hand sanitizer, while Elon Musk's SpaceX is also making hand sanitizer and face shields (while Tesla will produce ventilators) to donate to hospitals and health care workers across the country.

Meanwhile, even though health officials have certainly come around to the benefits of alcohol-based hand sanitizers over the past two decades, they also remain adamant that the best method for avoiding germs is washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water. 

"The physical act of hand-washing and running water really does remove a very, very large percentage of bacteria, dirt and grime, something that hand sanitizer does not do," says Dr. Bharati.

--Addtional reporting by Beatriz Bajuelos and Allison Lau

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

Don't miss:

Everything you need to know about the coronavirus stimulus checks

The SARS epidemic threatened Alibaba's survival in 2003—here's how it made it through to become a $470 billion company

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

How kombucha became a near $500 million fermented tea empire
How kombucha became a near $500 million fermented tea empire