Here's Why Your Hand Sanitizer Suddenly Smells So Bad

This really is the land of opportunity. Take hand sanitizer, for instance. Back in 2019 (remember 2019?), the product showed up here and there. You'd see a few folks who, let's be honest, were working on some issues related to germophobia and possibly agoraphobia and possibly inspired some of the subplots on Monk. Touch a door handle, out comes the wee bottle, squirt, rub, anxiety is alleviated for the moment. Maybe in a retail setting there'd be some by the cash register (and clerks no doubt thinking to themselves, "I have no idea where your debit card has been"). But not as ubiquitous as, say, facial tissue, or even a disposable coffee cup.

And then it was 2020, and there was stuff in the air and on surfaces, and masks, and hand sanitizer. Everywhere. Shortages, at first. (Panic buying hand sanitizer and bathroom tissue. Honestly, people....) Some of it's scented, some of it isn't, some works better than others, but now, besides being everywhere, odds are your hand sanitizer stinks. No, not the situation (though that's true, if you equate "this stinks" with "this is inconvenient") — the product. And yes, there's a reason.

First off, hand sanitizer is good, but soap and water are better, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You don't even have to use antibacterial soap — wash for 20-ish seconds, rinse, repeat as necessary. When you're out and about, that's a little tougher; hence, hand sanitizer.

Soap and water work better anyway

It's basically some form of alcohol (or even a couple of them) which, as we all know, kills germs, suspended in a delivery substance like gel or foam. When the pandemic started, there was an understandable (but inconvenient) rush on hand sanitizer. Stocks are back up in many places, but people are finding that their sanitizer isn't what it used to be.

That, reports The New York Times, is because of the new rush — to restore depleted stocks of the stuff. The smell of one brand was described as "the funky marriage of rotting corncobs paired with pungent notes of barnyard odors, a repulsive nose-wrinkling scent that lingered and wafted far and wide with every use." Yum. An article on Fun 107 compared the aroma to "whiskey vomit." (We hope you aren't reading this over breakfast.) Unfiltered denatured alcohol is now being used more commonly as the killy-germy ingredient — and it stinks. It's deliberately manufactured to smell unpleasant, partly to keep people from trying to drink it. ("Dude, we're out of beer....") You could make your own hand sanitizer, but most experts, including the FDA, advise against it. It's tricky to formulate a product that will actually be effective against the invisible choir of microorganisms we're all battling. Plus, the wrong proportions can lead to skin damage.

Soap and water is still preferred. Hand sanitizer if you must — though that's going to be tricky to apply while you're holding your nose.