If you look closely at your bottle of hand sanitizer you will notice hundreds of little bubbles floating around in there. You may wonder, do the tiny bubbles you see floating around in your hand sanitizer serve a purpose?
Almost every bottle of hand sanitizer you buy from the store will have bubbles in it. Some have a lot more bubbles than others though and you may be curious as to why this is. If you see images of hand sanitizer without any bubbles at all it is likely this will be a product photo that has been staged or faked. Taking a look back at the history of hand sanitizers provides an interesting story about how these bubbles came to be and learning about some basic properties of matter can help us understand why the bubbles are there at all.
What Causes The Bubbles?
Think about what happens when you vigorously shake up your soft drink before opening it. Your drink fizzes and bubbles so much that it starts to erupt out of the container, making a big mess on your floor. This happens because the carbon dioxide in the can is under pressure. When the can is shaken the bubbles created allow the carbon dioxide to escape quickly. If you just left your carbonated drink alone, the gas would still escape, only much slower.
Even pouring a drink can cause the carbon dioxide to form more bubbles. If you quickly pour beer into a glass, for instance, a head of foam will rise to the top of your glass.
Even when you can’t see it, all liquid has air bubbles in it. If you shake up a container of water, there are still air bubbles present, but you can’t see them because the air moves and separates from the water quickly and does not cause the same fizzing and bubbling you saw in your soft drink. The air in the water is able to quickly rise up and out of the water.
Hand sanitizer is different because the liquid is much thicker than water, so the gel-like liquid holds the air bubbles in place.
With hand sanitizer, the air bubbles do not move quickly because the liquid is extremely viscous. The bubbles created by the air in the liquid do move, but they move very slowly because they are held in place by the thick liquid.
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Do Companies Put Extra Bubbles in Deliberately?
A few bubbles will occur in any viscous liquid because some amount of jostling or shaking is unavoidable. In the case of hand sanitizer, a company called Nottingham Spirk came up with a process to add a lot more bubbles as a marketing scheme. Nottingham Spirk is a company that takes an existing product and enhances it in order to increase sales and make the product better in some way. This is the company that gave us the dosage cap on the Pepto-Bismol bottle, the Crest Spinbrush, the Swiffer Sweepervac, and thousands of other products.
In 1946, a company called Gojo was developed to create hand sanitizers, but it wasn’t until 1988 Purell was created. At first it wasn’t that popular. Now Purell is one of the leading brand names in hand sanitizer. When Nottingham Spirk stepped in, they added bubbles and made the bottles clear. These enhancements helped Purell hand sanitizer to gain popularity. The idea was that clear, clean liquid with bubbles looked cleaner and aesthetically pleasing than the previous look of the product. The psychology behind this was to make people think that if the hand cleaner looked cleaner, it must make things cleaner. Purell did increase sales because of the added bubbles, but it wasn’t until 2002 that Purell sales really skyrocketed. This is because in 2002 the Center for Disease Control announced that alcohol-based hand sanitizers were more effective than non-alcohol-based sanitizers. Purell is an alcohol-based hand sanitizer which helped it to become the household name that it is now.
There are several hand sanitizer companies these days and some include bubbles that you can see in their hand sanitizers and some don't. So what's going on? Does Gojo own the exclusive rights to use the bubble making process?
Without doing the research it is difficult to say for certain, but we think it is likely that Nottingham Spirk owns the patent for the bubble adding process. They could choose to sell that process to other companies to do it themselves or license it out to other companies like Gojo. If you look up images of non-Purell hand sanitizers, it is clear that a lot of companies do not add the bubbles to their sanitizers. This may be because they don’t want to shell out the extra money, or Nottingham Spirk doesn’t want to sell it.
Of course, whether the company uses a commercial process to put bubbles in their hand sanitizer or not, some bubbles will naturally get into any liquid. Even the process of shipping and handling will shake the container up enough to cause some bubbles.
Do Different Brands Have Different Techniques?
Look at the ingredients list on two different bottles of hand sanitizer and you will likely see differences. Hand sanitizers might be simply made from alcohol, water and a gelling agent or they might have additional ingredients added. Some hand sanitizers include soap to help fight grease and others include foaming agents. This is why some of your hand sanitizers foam and some do not.
Whether your hand sanitizer has a foaming agent added or not, it won’t foam up when it is in the bottle. A foaming agent generally only works when it is exposed to air. That’s why a hand sanitizer foams more after you squirt it into your hand and rub it around. More air is getting to it, causing it to foam up more.
Similar to the soap dispensers you see in some public washrooms, some foaming hand sanitizers have unique nozzles on the containers which cause the sanitizer to foam as it is dispensed.
If you think about how the bubbles are caused in any liquid you won’t be surprised that the same brand of sanitizer can have different levels of bubbles. If one bottle of hand sanitizer has been shaken, turned upside down and generally been handled more it will have more bubbles than the bottle that has been left to sit still.
Bubbles in hand sanitizer don’t make the product better or worse. Purell adds bubbles as a marketing tool, but many companies do not. With the need for hand sanitizer on the rise several breweries have been producing hand sanitizer and donating it to make up for the shortage. If you look at the pictures or videos of this hand sanitizer you probably won’t be able to detect that many bubbles. There has been no need for adding bubbles just for aesthetics, and these bottles have not been shaken up or jostled around. The lack of bubbles in these hand sanitizers does not mean that they are an inferior product for eliminating germs.
Am I Being Short Changed with Bubbles?
The bubbles in your hand sanitizer are tiny, they are not taking up enough room in your bottle to make any impact on the amount of hand sanitizer you are getting per bottle. Buying a bottle of hand sanitizer with bubbles, or a bottle without bubbles will make no difference in the amount of sanitizer you get for the amount of money you paid. Just grab your favorite type of hand sanitizer and don’t worry whether or not you can see bubbles in it.
Are The Bubbles Bad?
It has been hypothesized by some people that the bubbles in hand sanitizer must be a health threat in some form. The truth is, there is absolutely nothing bad about those little bubbles in your bottle of hand sanitizer. They are simply air bubbles, not a sign of chemicals breaking down or some sort of bacteria as people on the internet might lead you to believe. When you apply the hand sanitizer to your hands the bubbles will just disappear and will not harm your skin or health in any way.
Have There Been Health Issues with Bubbles in Hand Sanitizer?
Remember the process we discussed about how the bubbles are added to the hand sanitizer?
Just like the carbonation in your soft drink, carbon dioxide or air has been added to the viscous liquid in your hand sanitizer causing tiny bubbles. There is just simply not enough CO2 in that entire bottle of hand sanitizer to pose any health risks. Again, don’t worry about the bubbles in your hand sanitizer. There are absolutely zero risks to your health associated with whether or not there are bubbles or not bubbles.
So, the bubbles in your hand sanitizer may get added as part of the production process, or the hand sanitizer may get shaken up enough that bubbles form. Those are really the only two ways to get bubbles in your hand sanitizer. No matter what people say on the internet, the bubbles are not caused by an alcohol eating bacteria or some other foolishness that you may read about. Any bacteria living in your hand sanitizer is no more dangerous than any other bacteria living on your skin, in the air or on surfaces in your home.
To summarize, the bubbles in your hand sanitizer cannot hurt you and they don’t make you hand sanitizer any more or less effective. It is sort of cool to read about how the bubbles came about though!
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