Getting Purelled: The New Fixation of an Ailing Nation

hand gel

Getting Purelled is the growing phenomenon of sanitizing one’s germ-infested mitts with the alcohol-based, Johnson & Johnson product known as Purell.

What’s in the name, William Safire students might ask?

Pure, I imagine, denotes the opposite of tainted, which in flu terms translates into ralphing, the runs and the unpleasant sensation of having been poisoned by Satan. Elle is French for she, as in, she is cruel that H1N1 Virus, widespread in 47 states now. Elle also is a swank Fifties ad-on, like ette for dinette. It sounds real classy.

I first heard the term the other day after ordering my teenage daughter to wash her hands after school. She’s a nail biter, more susceptible than most.

“I just got purelled,” she explained, exhibiting a jellyfish-like, residue bubble in her palm, which she kept afloat because she was undoubtedly fascinated by its staying power.  She has been studying chemistry in school. And I believe pathogen is one of her SAT terms.

Sydney and her peers happily take advantage of the economy, vat-sized, plastic dispensers of the waterless germ fighter stationed in every nook and cranny of her school, from the bathrooms to the cafeteria, library and gym.

At the campus’s recent Grandparents Day buffet breakfast, I watched an elderly dude mistake the jug O’Purell for carbonated water, carelessly pumping a shot into his cup with a puzzled visage. I gently intervened to set him straight. “You don’t want to drink that, Mister.”

The sanitizer, albeit refreshing upon contact with the skin, is not desirable as a beverage, no matter how much the Dunder Mifflinaholic, Meredith Baxter, of The Office fame ingests it for its alcohol content.

Getting purelled sounds ironically similar to getting paroled. In fact, a link exists when you consider hand purifying might prevent weeks off from school, a form of prison for parents who can’t do squat during the duration of the relatively mild but ubiquitously feared illness. I know as a mom who recently emerged from the trenches with her Swine Flu-infected youngest.

“Mommy, I’m bored! Mommy, stop working, I’m bored! ” I call it Purell hell.

In an aggressive no-tolerance approach, our school armed itself with endless stockpiles of the weapon at the beginning of the year hoping it might slow what it cannot prevent. While the CDC says there are  plenty of the H1N1 vaccines to go around, many parents apparently prefer that surefire killer, Purell.

“I definitely think it has slowed down the spread since contact between these kids is so constant, maybe each child is contacting 20 others throughout the day,”  says Dr. David Abusch-Magder, the head of middle school at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco.

At least the school, which has an impressive recycling and composting program, is using refillable containers. If you must invest is this much plastic, you might as well maximize its shelf life.


In addition to schools,  I’ve spotted the dispensers just about everywhere these days, from Trader Joe’s checkout counters to business offices, exercise studios and even in the cup holder of my own car.  The truth is there is no place to avoid the risk of contamination. Many organisms continue to thrive in my car despite the Purell.

Another truth is that we are creating a population of Purelled humans immune to the small percentage of bacteria resistant to the liquid. Bacteria that don’t die simply reproduce.

Let’s just hope we can conceive of  a way to upcycle all of those plastic dispensers once we are restored.

This is the latest installment in Luanne’s column, Life in the Green Lane.

Top image: The Local

Image One:Upyernoz

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.