Barbers have dipped their combs and scissors in it for six decades. Now the makers of Barbicide want masseurs, waiters and jail wardens to try a new form of the ubiquitous blue disinfectant.
The launch of wipes marks the first remake of Barbicide since its creation in 1947 by a high school science teacher in New York. New owners hope the public's fear of germs will give the product new life when the wipes start shipping this month.
The blue liquid in the tall glass jar is as much a part of the classic barbershop experience as the red-and-white pole. It's in more than 70 percent of the world's barbershops and salons that use disinfectants, said Alan Murphy, president of King Research, which makes Barbicide.
Now Murphy and Chief Executive Kevin Schuele, who bought the company with an investor group in 2006 for an undisclosed sum, envision the wipes used in hotels, spas, restaurants, schools and jails.
People are more concerned about germs — especially with news of a recent outbreak of the drug-resistant form of staph infection, Murphy said. They're asking service providers how they're keeping massage tables, arm rests, chairs and tanning beds germ-free.
"It has to come out of the background and into the forefront at those salons — the issue of disinfecting," he said.
The issue became more widespread — and even the butt of late-night jokes — in 2005, when singer and "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul testified before California lawmakers about a flesh-eating fungus that she acquired after a manicure in 2004. As for larger outbreaks, the Centers for Disease Control said it doesn't track those in salons.
King Research won't release sales numbers, but Murphy said recent scares like the staph outbreaks helped push business up more than 25 percent in the past year, since King Research's production moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Milwaukee.
The company was run for years by Maurice King, who created Barbicide in 1947, and then by his son, Ben, after Maurice's death in 1988. Schuele was approached by a broker hired by King, whose family wanted to get out of the business, and decided Barbicide was a good fit. His own company, Pak Technologies does contract production of chemicals, personal care and other items, and he was looking for a recognizable, niche product with a strong market. Schuele decided to buy the company and then found the Milwaukee-area investor group including Murphy, appropriately, by talking to his hair stylist.
The products are only available to professionals, like hair stylists, through a network of 800 distributors and in national supply stores like Sally Beauty Supply.
In the consumer product market, the number of disinfectant products and their sales are exploding. According to research firm Mintel International, there were 1,610 anti-bacterial products — soaps, household cleaners and health care products — in 2006. That's up from 200 three years earlier. Sales of just hand sanitizers in the U.S. in 2005 were $67 million, up from $44 million in 2004, the most recent years available.
"Consumers in the U.S. seem to be very focused on germs and on eradicating them in every possible way," said Lynn Dornblaser, senior new product analyst at Mintel. The Barbicide wipes, she said, help professionals tap into that trend.
Peggy Dixon said she couldn't get enough of the wipes when she tested them at her salon, Harpo's, in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay. She wasn't sure what to make of them, but ended up using about two dozen wipes a day to clean chairs, counters and even door knobs.
She said she notices when someone is coughing or spreading germs at the salon. Customers — especially those who follow sick ones — notice, too.
"Sometimes they'll give me a look like, 'OK, that's not good.' And then I'll just wipe down the chair," Dixon said.
Scares like MRSA make more people aware of disinfecting, said Bonnie Bonadeo, director of education and program development for the Professional Beauty Association, a trade group for the industry's manufacturers, distributors, salons and spas.
Each state has disinfecting requirements and salons are subject to random checks and fines if found to be noncompliant, she said.
Murphy said the company is now selling the wipes and hopes to have the first shipments out in a few weeks. They've been approved for sale by 40 states and the rest should be on board soon, he said.
The wipes have already received EPA approval as a hospital disinfectant. The EPA considers them capable of killing certain germs, like the HIV-1 virus, Hepatitis B, and the so-called 'super staph' infection — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
Although the federal EPA approves such products and verifies their effectiveness, state entities license them for sale in each state.
Barbicide in its original liquid form just passed testing to show it can kill MRSA, and now King Research will seek approval of that by the EPA, Murphy said. The EPA recommends that salons completely replace their disinfectant containers, such as the Barbicide jar, each day, or whenever they become contaminated with dirt or debris.
At King Research's plant on the north side of Milwaukee, the company is adding production capacity, preparing for business to boom. The liquid form of Barbicide, made of isopropyl alcohol and ammonium, was brewed in 5,000-gallon batches by hand but that's been doubled to 10,000-gallon batches with new equipment that fills 90 half-gallon bottles a minute. The liquid for the wipes is also made at the plant, though the wipes are assembled by a company in Sheboygan, Wis., about 60 miles north.
Hundreds of boxes of the company's 20-some other products sit in the warehouse, including Clippercide, a top-selling disinfectant and lubricant for hair clippers, moisturizing cream Love & Kisses and Rinse No More shampoo.
King Research is working with industries overseas to tout disinfectants and encourage governments to adopt standards. Barbicide is available in 39 countries and Murphy and Schuele said they see growth opportunities in Germany, Italy and France, and parts of Africa and the Caribbean.
Domestically, King Research is launching a Web site in the coming months with interactives and games to help educate consumers and professionals about disinfecting. It has trademarked the phrase, "Are you blue?" and plans an advertising campaign in industry publications.
"'Are you blue?' is a fair question that anybody should ask when they go into those facilities," Murphy said. "Are you blue? What is your disinfection in your salon?"