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The History of Hand Washing

In this day and age, we are washing our hands several times a day, but for much of history, that was not the case. Handwashing has been a part of personal hygiene practices as well as religious and cultural customs for many years. Yet, handwashing as a form of healthcare and illness prevention only began less than two centuries ago. Handwashing as social responsibility is a relatively new practice.

The Beginning

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working in Vienna General Hospital paved the way for proper hand hygiene in medical facilities in 1846. He noticed that women giving birth in the medical maternity ward in his hospital were more likely to develop a fever and die compared to the women giving birth in the midwife-run maternity ward. The doctors and student doctors often performed autopsies directly before visiting the maternity ward. This observation led Semmelweis to hypothesize performing autopsies left “cadaverous particles” on their hands, which they transferred to the maternity ward. Midwives did not conduct surgery or autopsies, so they were not exposed to these particles. Semmelweis created a new rule mandating doctors and student doctors to scrub their hands with a chlorine lime solution before every patient contact and especially after leaving the autopsy room. The rates of death in his maternity ward fell dramatically to 3% and remained low. This was the first evidence that cleansing heavily contaminated hands with an antiseptic agent can reduce nosocomial transmission of germs. Unfortunately, Semmelweis was unable to persuade other doctors to adopt his hand washing protocol.

It was not until the 1980s when foodborne illness outbreaks and healthcare-associated infections led the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to connect hand hygiene as a solution to the spread of these infections. The WHO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care states:

"In 1995 and 1996, the CDC/Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee (HICPAC) in the USA recommended that either antimicrobial soap or a waterless antiseptic agent be used56,57 for cleansing hands upon leaving the rooms of patients with multidrug-resistant pathogens. More recently, the HICPAC guidelines issued in 200258 defined alcohol-based hand rubbing, where available, as the standard of care for hand hygiene practices in health-care settings, whereas handwashing is reserved for particular situations only59." (NCBI)

Ignaz Semmelweis washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before operating. Bettmann/Corbis

Hand Hygiene Catching On

After figuring out that germs spread illnesses, hand hygiene products were developed by using chemistry to help minimize the spread of germs. . This led to the evolution of hand cleansers. Using basic hand soap and clean water was the only hand washing method for thousands of years. In the 20th Century, we saw the development of advanced cleansers and sanitizers designed to reduce microbes and provide unique benefits to the hands.

How to do it

The Center for Disease Control recommends the public follow these guidelines to properly clean hands and stop the spread of germs.

  1. Wet your hands with clean water and apply soap

  2. Lather the soap by rubbing your hands together

  3. Scrub for at least 20 seconds, or the approximate amount of time it takes to hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice

  4. Rinse your hands completely in clean, running water

  5. Dry your hands wither with a clean towel or by air drying

The Evolution of Soap

The first evidence we have of soap creation dates around 2800 B.C in Babylon. The first soap makers were Babylonians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians. They all made soaps by mixing fat, oils, and salts. This means they were the first people on record to make soap. Babylonian soap was created with fat boiled with ashes, so their soap was much different from ours. In the early stages of soap, it wasn’t used for bathing and personal hygiene. It was used for cleaning cooking utensils or goods such as textiles. Arabic chemists were the first to produce soap made from vegetable oils, aromatic oils, and lye in the 7th century. They began creating perfumed and colored soap. By 1200 A.D., Marseilles, France, and Savona became soap manufacturing hubs. The popularity of hygiene rose in the late eighteenth century and that is when industrially manufactured bar soap became available.

In England, Andrew Pears began manufacturing a high-quality, transparent soap in 1789 and Robert Spear Hudson started producing dry powder soap in 1837.

The Castille region of Spain was the creator of the first white bar of olive oil soap.

Modern Soap

The chemistry of soap manufacturing evolved into modern soap during World War I. During WWI and WWII, the shortage of animal and vegetable fats and oils forced the industry to get creative. Without access to the oils and fats historically used in soap production, chemists explored other raw materials. This shift created what we know today as “detergents.” Soaps are made from natural ingredients such as plant oils or fatty acids. Detergents are created with synthetic human-made derivatives as opposed to natural plant oils and animal fats. The difference between soap and detergent is relatively unknown to the general public so “soap” is often used as an umbrella term.

Decades of laboratory experiments with coconut, palm, and cottonseed oil led to the discovery of hydrogenated fats in 1909. These vegetable-based fats made manufacturers less dependents on animal byproducts, yay for the vegans! In 1865 William Shepphard patented a liquid version of soap. Liquid soap didn’t gain popularity until the introduction of Palmolive in 1898.

Today’s commercially manufactured soaps have the resources to be highly specialized with unique ingredients that target a range of issues. Soaps can do far more than just clean your hands. Lathering agents, moisturizers, color additives, scents, and aromatic oils can enhance the experience soap provides. Soap has historically been an ordinary product that can be lackluster. This led to the popularity of aromatic soaps.

Sympol Soap

Sympol Products has created a hand soap that combines the advancements of the soap industry. Our soap is far from basic, old-school soap. We have included natural aromatic oils that moisturize and soothe hands while creating a lovely aromatic experience. By creating an exciting aromatic experience we hope to form positive associations with hand washing. We all know now that hand washing is a necessity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy it. In fact, we believe hand washing should be enjoyed.

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