Listerine Was Once Sold as Floor Cleaner
By Chad Upton | Editor
If you haven’t noticed, the popularity of hand sanitizer has exploded. It’s in our desks, cars, purses and homes. I have seen dispensers at subway stops, hospitals, airports and restaurants. We are obviously obsessed with killing germs and fighting viruses.
With H1N1, Mad Cow, SARS and others, you can’t blame us for being careful. It seems like hand sanitizer came out of nowhere, but it’s not new, and neither is the principle.
The first time I saw hand sanitizer was in 1995. I worked at a restaurant and we were told to use it hourly. At the time, it seemed like a magical potion. I thought the concept was weird: I wasn’t washing anything off my hands, I was rubbing it in.
The truth is, hand sanitizer is more effective at killing bacteria than soap and water. That said, soap and water is far more effective at removing visible dirt.
For the most part, hand sanitizers use a variety of alcohols as their active ingredient. To be effective at reducing bacteria, they should contain at least 60% alcohol, and most contain 60% to 85%. A few brands (worth avoiding) contain as little as 40% alcohol and some hospital solutions have as much as 95%.
So, where did this idea start?
It began in 1867 with a British surgeon, Joseph Lister. He published a series of articles in the British Medical Journal stating that surgery patients had less tissue infection if the incisions and surgical instruments were treated with carbolic acid prior to surgery.
At the time, they didn’t wash their hands or anything else before surgery. They thought gangrene wounds were caused by stinky air. Seriously. The same stinky air they blamed for cholera, black death and bubonic plague. They later realized the stinky air was actually the result of rotting wounds, not the cause.
His work lead to the germ theory of disease. It was the equivalent of suggesting the Earth was round, when everyone else thought it was flat. Fortunately, it was very easy to demonstrate the success of his theory and it became widely accepted.
In 1879, Listerine was named after him. It was originally developed as a surgical antiseptic, but that’s a pretty small market. To increase sales, they began marketing it as a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. That brought company revenues to about $115k, but marketers had another idea in the 1920s.
In this era of patent medicines, there were products to cure every known illness. The Listerine folks weren’t going to let this bandwagon pass by. All they needed was the perfect illness, something that everyone had and Listerine could cure; so, they made up the term, “chronic halitosis” (bad breath).
You see, bad breath hadn’t been invented yet. At that time, bad breath was just known as “breath.” Their best effort was an ad campaign that suggested young people would never find marriage with a condition such as bad breath. Over 7 years, revenues skyrocketed to $8 million.
Listerine is still sold as an antiseptic today, and primarily marketed for oral health. Depending on the flavor, it contains 21.6% to 26.9% alcohol.