Day 6

How Purell went from money-loser to hand sanitizer dominance

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, Purell hand sanitizer is a hot commodity. But this wasn’t always the case. Journalist David Owen explains the product’s rough beginnings and how its fortunes changed.

Manufacturer Gojo was initially skeptical it had a civilian market, says journalist David Owen

Hand sanitizer is one of the most sought-after products as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. But Purell, one of the most recognizable brands of sanitizer, initially struggled to find a market. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Can't find a bottle of hand sanitizer? You're probably not alone.

As COVID-19 cases increase, hand sanitizers have become a hot commodity among shoppers. Stores are finding it difficult to keep shelves stocked with them, and some online sellers have sold bottles of hand sanitizers for many times their original price.

But do back to 1988, when the most well-known hand sanitizer brand Purell was first launched, and it was a different story.

Soft initial sales of the product resulted in Ohio-based skincare manufacturer Gojo Industries losing money over the product.

The New Yorker's David Owen wrote about the company's rough beginnings in 2013. He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about Purell's early years and how they overcame those first challenges.

How is it possible there was ever a world without Purell, let alone a world where Purell couldn't make any money?

It's kind of amazing. This small soap company called Gojo invented it in 1988, and it was sort of a novelty product.

They invented it as an alternative for medical care providers when soap and water were not available for washing hands. It was kind of a backup hand cleaner.

But people didn't know what it was for. They weren't interested in it, even though the president of the company made it part of his salesmen's sales quota. They hated it, they had a terrible time selling it.

How did this product come into existence?

There was this idea that you would provide an alcohol-based hand cleaner that medical personnel could use when they were unable to wash their hands with soap and water. And what happened was that nurses who worked in hospitals liked it … and they tried to get it for themselves.

It took a long time not only for customers to see that it was an interesting product, but also for the company to realize that it potentially had a wider market than they had originally anticipated.

You mentioned Gojo, the company that first produced it and still does. Who was the couple behind Gojo and how did they get things rolling?

Gojo was founded in 1946 by a married couple, Goldie and Jerry Lippman.

The company made this sort of glop that mechanics could use to clean their hands — the black stuff that would never come off their hands, under their nails and the creases of their hands. 

This stuff took it off, and the way they would sell it is you'd talk to a guy who owned a garage and the salesman would put a glob of it in his hand. And when they shook hands, it would get onto the hand of the mechanic. He would rub it off and as he did, his hands for the first time really came clean. 

I think it makes it possible to do at least something to reduce the likelihood of transmitting this [coronavirus] through your hands, even if it doesn't do everything.- Owen

That was a big hit, and you can still buy that product. You'll see it when you take your car in to be repaired. You'll likely see a Gojo dispenser or something like it in the garage. 

Why then was it so difficult for Gojo to get people interested in Purell when they first produced it?

The hand cleaner had an obvious effect: if your hands were filthy, you rubbed it on and they came clean. With Purell, the effect was invisible.

Now, all anybody thinks about is how clean their hands are. But that hasn't always been the case. It took a while for people to wrap their heads around this idea. 

Yet the company continued to believe in it. As you mentioned, the sales force was resistant but the president of the company kept pushing it. Why was the president so devoted to this product?

He liked it. It is refreshing [and] it feels good on your hands. He said it was also visually appealing. The manufacturing process puts little bubbles in it. If you ever see a bottle of it, you'll notice that there are little bubbles suspended in it.

Bottles of Purell hand sanitizer sit on display as a worker stocks shelves at a local Dahl's grocery store on April 29, 2009, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press)

And then, it turned out that it had a real, serious use. One of the most dangerous places you could go is the hospital. ...You would think that medical personnel would be especially good about cleaning their hands. And you know, a hand becomes a biological weapon as soon as you touch something bad, and doctors touch bad things all the time. 

[Hand sanitizer]'s not perfect, like soap and water … but it's easy. And one of the advantages of it is that you walk by a dispenser, you plop it on your hands, you rub it as you walk along to your next appointment, and you use it at times when you would not necessarily duck into a restroom and wash your hands the way you're supposed to wash them.

So what happened that turned the public interest in the product around?

There's some places, for example cruise ships. They're sources of all kinds of infection, with people in close space. The cruise ship industry became very interested in hand sanitizers.

In fact, Gojo developed a super powerful version that was especially meant for places like cruise ships and casinos, where there's lots of touching of surfaces that have been touched by other people. 

A hand sanitizer dispenser for guests is shown in a gaming area at the Tropicana Las Vegas, Nev., on March 14, 2020, as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

My wife and I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and there was a basket of party favours. It was bottles of Purell, which were already not available in grocery stores [but] our hostess had managed to lay in this big supply. It was like being given something very expensive as you walked out. 

That's great and so quaint — because who remembers parties now?

Right. That was definitely the last party that we've ever been to as, you know, every day seems scarier than it did the day before.

I think it makes it possible to do at least something to reduce the likelihood of transmitting this [Coronavirus] through your hands, even if it doesn't do everything. 

When you did this story seven years ago, did you have any sense of how central Purell would become to people's sense of wellbeing?

No. None of us really knew that what has happened would happen. But it was increasingly clear to people that we're in a lot of situations where we pass pathogens to one another.

Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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