People Are Swooping Up Purell as Soon as the Hand Sanitizer Hits the Shelves

Workers are producing around the clock to keep up with demand and keep shelves stocked

bottle of Purell
The demand for Purell is at an all-time high. Courtesy GOJO Industries
Headshot of Robert Klara

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is a busy man these days. In the last week or so, he’s thrown his weight behind numerous initiatives to help his home state, including SBA loans, food distribution and the procurement of a COVID-19 testing machine. But another of Portman’s maneuverings affects people across the entire nation. That’s because Ohio happens to be home to GOJO Industries, makers of Purell. Dispensers for the hand sanitizer depend on a pumping mechanism that, thanks to tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, are now in short supply. Portman is working to lift those tariffs.

“We need all the hand sanitizer we can produce,” the senator said.

That’s an understatement. The World Health Organization declared coronavirus to be a public health emergency on Jan. 30 and, by Feb. 22, online sales of hand sanitizer surged by 170%, according to NPD Group data. Research firm Mintel reports that, as of late March, 58% of Americans reported they were “using hand sanitizer more often.”

Which is to say: They’re probably using Purell. It’s the top-selling brand. It’s basically synonymous with the category. Purell’s 2,500 employees are now pulling shifts 24/7 to make as much Purell as possible, though the company concedes it can barely touch the demand.

Jerry and Goldie Lippman (1) went into the hand-cleaner business in 1946, marketing GoJo Hand Cleaner as a safer alternative for industrial workers than solvents like benzene. The Lippmans’ nephew, Joe Kanfer, took over the company in the mid-1970s and later spearheaded the launch of Purell. Introduced to a disinterested market in 1988, these days Purell's two Ohio factories are operating around the clock (3). Even early in the COVID-19 crisis, stores quickly sold out of Purell (4), prompting distilleries and breweries to step in and make their own hand sanitizers.
Courtesy GOJO Industries; 4: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

“Many people are asking, ‘When will I see Purell on retail shelves again?’” corporate communications senior director Samantha Williams said in a statement. “We can tell you we are shipping Purell products to retailers every day. Customers are buying out these products as soon as they hit shelves.”

The current mania over this clear, medicinal-smelling glop is all the more remarkable—considering the fact that, a generation ago, the company could scarcely give the stuff away. Originally aimed at hospital and food-service employees, Purell had no takers when it first hit the market in 1988.

Germ Warfare: As companies like GM gear up to make ventilators, the current public-health crisis echoes with the defense-mobilization efforts of World War II. As it turns out, that war also gave us Purell—at least indirectly. Goldie Lippman worked in an Akron, Ohio, rubber plant during the war, making rafts for the U.S. Army. When she noticed that toxic chemicals like benzene were the only way to get carbon black off workers’ hands, she and her husband, Jerry, worked at home to concoct a safer heavy-duty hand cleaner, which they called GoJo. The success of GoJo would lead to an antimicrobial formulation that was originally to be called Flash, a name the company dropped before opting for Purell.

“It wasn’t catching on,” GOJO’s then-CEO Joe Kanfer told CBS in 2013. “We were losing money right and left, trying to sell it, trying to promote it.”

That’s because sanitation-minded workers focused solely on hand-washing as a regimen. It would take until 2002 for the Centers for Disease Control to announce that alcohol-based products killed germs just as well. For GOJO, which had also begun making Purell for consumer use, it was deliverance. Leaving aside the patronage of everyday germophobes, Purell sales spiked amid the SARS outbreak in 2003. When H1N1 hit in 2009, GOJO tripled capacity.

But nothing compares to the demand for Purell right now—so extreme that, at press time, a six-pack of Purell was selling on eBay for $400. (“Like many of you, we have been upset by the price gouging around our products,” Williams said.)

Where will it end? Perhaps with a GOJO competitor winding up with some serious market share, assuming it can move quickly enough.

“This is a huge opportunity for brands that are well-known in the category, such as Purell, to become the brand that consumers turn to in a time of crisis,” said Mintel home and personal care analyst Olivia Guinaugh. “In fact, many other brands and companies, including those outside the hand-sanitizer category, have been stepping up to fill the hand-sanitizer void.”

This story first appeared in the April 6, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.