There’s a scientific reason your hand sanitizer may smell like crap.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans flocked to stores to stock up on cleaning essentials, leaving shelves barren of everyday disinfectants, cleaning supplies and sanitizer.
Then distilleries and other manufacturers stepped in to help with the shortage, creating brands unrecognizable from household names like Purell or Germ-X, many of which boast bold odors.
The distinct often tequila-like smells are a natural byproduct of ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, a main germ-killing ingredient, according to a report from the New York Times’s Wirecutter.
Many commonly used sanitizers are made with ethyl alcohol or a close substitute.
“That off-putting smell — sometimes described as rotten garbage or tequila-like — is the natural byproduct of ethanol being made from corn, sugar cane, beets, and other organic sources,” Bryan Zlotnik, of fragrance manufacturer Alpha Aromatics said, adding that many new hand sanitizer brands are made with denatured ethanol.
He said that type of ethanol costs significantly less than ethanol filtered using activated carbon filtration, which would typically remove almost all contaminants and the malodor with it.”
The denaturants can include methanol, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone and denatonium, which intestinally make it less appealing to ingest, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said. And that could be a plus in a time where people should avoid touching their faces, according to experts.
“The malodor is a potent behavioral message to keep our hands away from our face, which is something we should be doing anyway,” Pamela Dalton of Monell Chemical Senses Center said in the Wirecutter report. “While I normally do not want my hands to smell like a farm, it certainly did keep me from putting my hands anywhere near my face—and that could be a good thing!”
Shoppers should be aware of the basic ingredients in their sanitizers, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently issued a warning about some testing positive for toxic methanol.