The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The history and mystery of Purell, the most sacred goo of our new era

(Pablo Delcan for The Washington Post)

Imagine having enough Purell to cover not just your hands but your entire body, right now. Imagine covering your entire family. Imagine covering the entire country. What about the entire world? Just SQUIRT and disinfect every surface at once? Imagine there were moments that could, in the middle of this chaos, feel completely safe and clean.

Purell. Not the only hand sanitizer out there, but the symbolic one. The brand name. The future museum artifact representing the spring of covid-19. A clear liquid in a clear bottle in a clear glass box that a cyborg mother points out to her cyborg child: “See this? They used to rub this on themselves. It supposedly killed 99.99 percent of germs, but it definitely made them feel 100 percent better.”

Purell. Draw it out, and it sounds like the name of a lady at the beauty salon. Clip it short, and it sounds like our current location: We're in pure hell. But while we're in there, we're also in Purell. Doused, lacquered, chapped, chilled, smelling vaguely of hospitals.

If, that is, you're lucky enough to have a bottle. On eBay, travel-size Purells went for $10 or $20 as coronavirus made its way into the United States. In gyms and yoga studios, before the gyms and yoga studios closed, communal bottles were padlocked to prevent theft, like engagement rings at Zales. In Tennessee, a former Air Force technical sergeant hoarded nearly 18,000 bottles from dollar stores across two states, hocking them for up to $70 apiece on Amazon until the retailer pulled the plug. When the New York Times reported what he had been doing, he received death threats and said he would donate his stockpile to churches.

Coronavirus is a test that no one knows how to pass

And earlier this month, the metaphor of our times — for our panic and obliviousness, our desperation and our delusion, for how much we crave safety and how little we are willing to give up in order to get it — arrived in the form of an Instagram video. It was an advertisement for a strip club in Times Square. It opened on a dimly lit stage. Women in thongs gyrated and twerked and rubbed sexy oil on each other’s butts. Only it wasn’t sexy oil. It was Purell.

“The cleanest place in New York,” read the tagline, as a dancer ran her hand suggestively up an economy-size bottle.

My God, what are we all doing, and how long will Purell make us feel okay doing it?

In 1946, a curly-haired brunette named Goldie Lippman, who had spent World War II making life rafts in a rubber factory in Ohio, set about looking for a better way to clean her hands. The harsh chemicals she had used in the factory worked well but wrecked her skin. She and her husband, Jerry, thought they could come up with an alternative — and they did, after mixing batch after batch of cleanser in their basement washing machine.

Gojo, as they eventually named their company, spent the next several decades growing and expanding and innovating the art of hand-washing until, in the late 1980s, Gojo developed a clear, alcohol-based, emollient-enriched, disinfecting substance that was dispensed by a pump bottle and required no water at all. First sold mostly to medical professionals, it hit the public nearly a decade later, in two-ounce bottles and scents like Magic Mint. The rollout coincided with the 1996 presidential campaign. Both the Bill Clinton and Bob Dole camps received early samples. Tipper Gore was a fan.

Purell is “just the thing for people who have to shake hands with lots of people,” Gore said, “and don’t have time to wash up between shakes.”

Then came SARS, MERS, bird flu, swine flu, Ebola. Every few years, there was a scary outbreak, and every few years we recommitted to the sacrament of Purelling. Gojo Industries’ phones in Akron, Ohio, rang off the hook during the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, when people wanted to know, Will this protect us? Gojo tripled production in 2009, when swine flu triggered hoarding of Purell. When a Dallas nurse was diagnosed with Ebola in 2014, area churchgoers added ablutions to their handshakes of peace.

“Just don’t touch me,” columnist Kerry Dougherty wrote then in the Virginian-Pilot. “If you do, don’t be insulted when I squirt myself with Purell.”

The Purellification of America is about sanitation, but it is really about sanity. Fear, control, and the fear that we have no control.

Pandemic, panic and toilet paper math

These feelings, in 2020, are brought about by any number of mundane, horrid activities: Seeing your neighbor cough. Imagining a tickle in your own throat. Monitoring virus trackers online, watching infection numbers tick up by the hundreds with every page refresh, receiving the news alert that — ding — West Virginia has confirmed cases now, too, so that makes all 50 states. As of last week, the United States was testing 125 people per million while countries like South Korea were testing more than 5,000 people per million, meaning that there’s a lot of sickness we don’t even know about, the worst is yet to come.

Doctors don’t have enough masks, hospitals don’t have enough ventilators, and recently a swarming mass of spring breakers still clustered on towels at Florida’s Clearwater Beach, smearing sunscreen on one another’s backs, in joyful, reckless defiance of science.

Health officials recommend hand washing to combat the novel coronavirus and other viral infections. Here’s how to properly make sure your hands are clean. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the middle of all of this: Wash your hands. It’s the one piece of advice that has remained constant. Protect yourself by washing your hands. Protect older people by washing your hands. “I WANT YOU — TO WASH YOUR HANDS,” reads a patriotic poster that substitutes President Trump for Uncle Sam. The economy is tailspinning, millions of citizens have been told to shelter in place, and your best defense is a bar of soap.

Or/and: a bottle of Purell.

Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that his state — or, rather, his state’s prison inmates — would be making 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per week. On Saturday, Trump announced that at least one major manufacturer of wine and spirits is repurposing its alcohol-production capabilities — at plants in Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas — to aid the effort.

“They’re making a tremendous amount of hand sanitizer,” Trump said at the White House, “at a very high level, by the way.”

What did he mean by “high level”? Will we soon be drowning in hand sanitizer? (Pretty please?)

Purell — or Germ-X, or a generic grocery-store brand, we could really be talking about any of them — is actually a very unmysterious product. We may treat it like holy water, a sacrament to precede or follow any interaction, but any bottle you pick up has mostly the same thing: alcohol (for disinfecting), glycerin (for moisturizing), polymer (to turn the whole mixture into a gel). Percentage-wise, the combination should be strong enough to kill germs, but mild enough to avoid cracking your epidermis and making you more vulnerable to contamination.

The thing is: We are a species that exists in constant symbiosis with germs. Foreign microbes, in and on our body, outnumber our own cells. Our immune system learns from them, except when it’s overwhelmed by them.

“Your hands are the most diverse microbial habitat on your body, because you’re touching surfaces every day,” says cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos, who helped develop the Purell Advanced product when she worked for Gojo Industries. She has a bottle that hangs off her purse. She uses it as a supplement, or a Plan B, not as a miracle goo.

“These products are great for when hand-washing is not possible,” Dobos says. “But hand-washing is the simple and most effective thing we can do. You don’t want to forget that and rely solely on these products.”

Hand sanitizer works, yes, but only if it is used correctly, says K.P. Ananth, professor and director of the cosmetic science program at the University of Cincinnati’s James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy.

“It’s not the product that’s in question, it’s often how well it is used,” Ananth says. For it to properly disinfect, you need to use enough to thoroughly cover your hands, and then let it sit for 30 seconds without touching anything else. “It’s the practice of it that matters.”

But Purellification is not just about cleaning the hands. It’s about cleansing the mind. It’s about zapping fear and anxiety before they get under the skin and seep into the brain. When people are out there frantically bidding $50 for a little bottle of something that doesn’t work any better than the bottle of Dial by your bathroom sink, it’s the idea of it that matters.

It’s medical, but it’s also mystical.

Which way to the Holy Land? We wanted to see the place where this thing is brewed and bottled. We wanted to be sanitized within 99.99 percent of our lives. We wanted relief from the invisible, microscopic world that is screwing up ours.

So we set our sights on Akron, Ohio, to the house Goldie and Jerry Lippman built.

Here are some things we heard, from various news sources, about the Gojo headquarters in Akron:

We heard there is a “hand hygiene lab,” with all kinds of faucets and all kinds of sinks, used to conduct experiments in the perfection of hand-washing.

We heard that Gojo has 2,500 employees, and all of them learn how to properly wash their hands as part of orientation, and then after that, all of them walk around with little bottles of sanitizer affixed to their belt loops.

We heard that Gojo Industries activated its “demand surge preparedness team” in December when the company learned about the coronavirus outbreak in China and that it is manufacturing Purell around the clock.

We heard all this about Gojo headquarters but could not verify it with our own eyes: Gojo Industries declined to comment for this story, and they also declined our request to visit.

“As you may know, Hand Sanitizers are over-the-counter drugs and are regulated by the FDA,” a member of Gojo’s public relations team wrote in response. “The FDA does not allow any manufacturers of hand sanitizers or soap to answer questions about the efficacy of these products against coronavirus or any virus. . . . We are very sorry that we can’t accommodate your request.”

This wasn’t about “efficacy,” we tried to explain. We are not science journalists. We just wanted to spend one blessed afternoon in the Clean Place, hunkering with cosmetic chemists and professional hand-washers — if not suspended in Purell, then at least surrounded by it. We wanted to make the fantasy real.

No dice. Gojo and Purell didn’t want to do anything that could be even remotely viewed as violating Food and Drug Administration rules, and apparently inviting us to the factory might be interpreted as crossing a line.

It turns out, the FDA had sent Gojo a letter in January warning them against commenting on specific diseases: “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,” read the letter.

Since then, several class-action lawsuits have been filed against Gojo, each accusing the company of misleading people about the power of Purell.

“If consumers believe defendant’s claims,” read a recent filing, “they are less likely to engage in other precautionary and preventive behavior which actually will prevent transmission of these diseases.”

Gojo chief executive Carey Jaros issued a statement saying that the lawsuits were “without merit” and that the company stands “100 percent behind the products.”

What to believe? We are so vulnerable, all of us, so achingly vulnerable, in our fragile society in our fragile bodies, and membranes between order and chaos and health and infection, have never appeared so thin. Creases become cracks become wounds.

While we were trying to talk our way into the Clean Place, an alternative origin story was replicating in the arteries of the Internet: The real inventor of hand sanitizer wasn’t Gojo, according to people on Twitter and Reddit, or any other giant pharmaceutical firm. It was a young woman named Lupe Hernandez.

Hernandez, they said, was a nursing student from Bakersfield, Calif., who — all the way back in 1966 — got the idea that disinfecting alcohol could be combined with gel to create water-free and portable cleanliness. She patented it, allegedly, and changed the world, but never got any credit.

“It’s refreshing to see her get a bit of recognition, albeit late,” wrote the website Remezcla on Wednesday. “Over 50 years later, Lupe Hernandez is still saving lives against threatening diseases and protecting brave medical professionals.”

We wish we could tell you more about Hernandez, but we couldn’t corroborate the story. We couldn’t find a patent record. The medical historians and nursing professors we contacted had never heard of Hernandez. Her name appeared in the 2018 edition of a nursing book; the author told us she thought she had read about Hernandez in an issue of American Nurse Today. The nurse who mentioned her in American Nurse Today thought she’d read about Hernandez in a publication named Minority Nurse, but when we searched all of the available online editions, Hernandez wasn’t mentioned in any of them.

Most references to Hernandez ultimately seemed to lead back to a 2012 Guardian article, which briefly mentioned her with the qualifier “The story goes . . . ”

Laura Barton, the writer of that article, told us that she couldn’t remember where she first learned of Hernandez; she’s written hundreds of articles since then. Barton was trapped in Greece by the virus when we emailed her, and her old reporting notebooks were back home in England.

We asked Julie Fairman, director emeritas of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, who asked her colleagues.

“They have heard the rumors,” she says, “but that’s about it.”

Fairman then suggested we could reach out to hospitals in Bakersfield and see whether any of them had any record of Lupe Hernandez training as a nurse, back in 1966. But even as Fairman was suggesting that, the city of Bakersfield was declaring a local emergency in response to the coronavirus. It didn’t seem right to pester hospitals, to ask busy staffers to dig for records on a student who may have studied there half a century ago. (Lupe, are you out there? Are your children? Contact us!)

Regardless of the facts, this is why we think the legend of Lupe went a little viral this week: because it is the story of how one woman — without access to a pharmaceutical lab or a PhD in chemistry, without the guidance of government, diligently and with a can-do American spirit — came up with a simple yet ingenious solution.

Her story might not be 99.99 percent true, or even 0.9 percent true. But believing it might confer a little bit of emotional protection against the darkness of this pandemic. She could do it. You can do it. We can do it. It just takes a little bit of improvisation. A little bit of luck. A little bit of hope. If only we could bottle that.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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