How Purell Became the Brand That’s Kept Our Flu-Obsessed Fears at Bay

And to think, it was a flop at first

In the Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion, a cook in Macau who's handled bad meat shakes hands with a traveling businesswoman named Beth Emhoff (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), who flies home and touches off a global pandemic that sickens and kills millions.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

That movie scared a lot of people—including Matt Damon, who played Mitch Emhoff, Patient Zero's husband. "There's a lot of Purell on the set," Damon laughed (nervously) in a 2011 interview. "And then a lot of conversations about investing in Purell."

A fine investment that would be, too. Nearly 70 percent of mysophobic Americans use some brand of hand sanitizer (42 percent more than once a day). And when you reach into your pocketbook or desk drawer for that reassuring little pump bottle, chances are it's Purell.

"People are more aware than ever of germs, and part of it is because we're all so busy and working so hard that nobody has time to get sick," said Amy Panos, deputy editor of Better Homes and Gardens, which recently selected Purell's sanitizing wipes as a best new product of 2016. "Using anti-bacterial gels and wipes is so easy, and Purell has become the generic term for the category. It's even become a verb. You can Purell your hands just like you can Google something."

Indeed you can. "I Purell my entire body," Kristin Chenoweth revealed on NBC not long ago. Purell's been written into the scripts of Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. President Obama reportedly used it after shaking hands—a practice President George W. Bush taught him. The U.S. Army incorporates Purell into basic training. And when the famously germphobic Howie Mandel decided to finally shake Jay Leno's hand, he did it with the help of Purell—a bowl filled with it.

Purell's manufacturer, the family-owned GoJo Industries, enjoys revenue estimated at $286 million—which makes it all the more surprising that Purell was initially a flop.

In 1946, Goldie and Jerry Lippman invented an industrial cleanser—GoJo—that would remove grease from auto factory workers' hands. The company came up with Purell in 1989 as a hand sanitizer for restaurant workers, but the product lost money for its first decade because, it was believed, only washing with soap and water could kill germs. Then in 2002, a CDC study concluded that alcohol-based gels were just as effective as washing with soap. Purell sales have grown steadily—helped along by terrifying flu outbreaks—ever since.

"People have known alcohol was a disinfectant for such a long time," said GoJo CEO Joe Kanfer, who explained that Purell is basically just ethyl alcohol mixed with moisturizers to keep skin from drying out. "This was a pretty simple concept," he added. "The challenge was opening eyes that something so simple could make a very big difference." 

Cruise: Dennis Macdonald/Getty Images

This story first appeared in the March 28 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.