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  • Writer's pictureNaomi Roach

A History of Hand Hygiene: From Ancient Origins to Modern Innovation

Hand sanitisers have become an indispensable part of our daily lives, especially during the global health crises of recent years. Did you know the concept of hand sanitisation dates back centuries? In this blog post, we will take you on a journey through time, exploring the fascinating history of hand hygiene, from it's ancient origins to the modern formulations we rely on today.

  1. Ancient Beginnings - The First Sanitisers: The concept of hand sanitisation can be traced back to ancient civilisations. Historical records suggest that as early as 2000 BCE, ancient Babylonians used a form of handwashing to rid their hands of impurities. In ancient India, Ayurvedic texts mentioned using natural substances like herbs and ashes for cleansing purposes.

  2. The Pioneering Work of Ignaz Semmelweis: In the mid-19th century, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis made a ground-breaking discovery. While working at a Vienna hospital, he observed a stark difference in mortality rates between two maternity wards. The ward where doctors washed their hands with chlorinated lime before attending to patients had significantly lower mortality rates compared to the ward where handwashing was not practiced (shocking to think about nowadays). Semmelweis's findings laid the foundation for modern hand hygiene practices.

  3. The Emergence of Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitisers: The first alcohol-based hand sanitiser was invented in 1966 by Lupe Hernandez, a nursing student in Bakersfield, California. Her formula, named "Sterillium," consisted of alcohol, aloe vera, and glycerin, which proved effective in killing germs, while keeping the skin moisturised. However, it was not until the 1980s that commercial production of alcohol-based hand sanitisers began, making them readily available to the public.

  4. Hand Sanitisers Go Mainstream: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, hand sanitisers gained widespread popularity, especially in healthcare settings. Hospitals and healthcare facilities adopted the use of alcohol-based sanitisers as an effective way to reduce healthcare-associated infections. The convenience and portability of hand sanitisers further propelled their adoption in various public spaces and workplaces.

  5. Innovations in Hand Sanitiser Formulations: As the demand for hand sanitisers increased, manufacturers introduced various formulations, including gels, foams, and sprays. Additionally, the inclusion of emollients like aloe vera and vitamin E helped combat the drying effects of alcohol, making some hand sanitisers gentler on the skin.

  6. Hand Sanitisers in the 21st Century: With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019, hand sanitisers became a symbol of personal protection and hygiene worldwide. Global health organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emphasised the importance of hand sanitisation in reducing the transmission of viruses.

Conclusion: The history of hand sanitisation is a journey marked by innovation, from ancient practices of hand cleansing to the modern alcohol-based formulations we rely on today (carried in almost every handbag). The pioneering work of Ignaz Semmelweis and the subsequent discoveries paved the way for the widespread use of hand sanitisers in healthcare settings and beyond. As we continue to navigate through times of global health challenges, hand sanitiser remains a vital tool in promoting hand hygiene and safeguarding public health. By understanding the evolution of hand sanitisers, we can appreciate their significance and continue to embrace them as an essential part of our daily lives.


  1. Kramer A, Assadian O, Toma CD. "History of hand hygiene in healthcare." GMS Hygiene and Infection Control. 2019;14:Doc08. doi: 10.3205/dgkh000337

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Show Me the Science - When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings." Retrieved from

  3. Boyce JM, Pittet D; Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee; HICPAC/SHEA/APIC/IDSA Hand Hygiene Task Force. "Guideline for Hand Hygiene in Health-Care Settings. Recommendations of the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee and the HICPAC/SHEA/APIC/IDSA Hand Hygiene Task Force." MMWR Recomm Rep. 2002;51(RR-16):1-45. PMID: 12418624.



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