Why Do Some Hand Sanitizers Smell Bad?

by Kirby Drake

These days, with concerns of contracting COVID-19, we’re all using hand sanitizer a little more liberally than we have in the past.

While this is great for killing germs, it comes with some drawbacks if your sanitizer doesn't have the greatest smell. Some say their hand sanitizer smells like tequila or rum. While others claim a farty aroma that is repulsive for a hand sanitizer.

Most effective hand sanitizers use alcohol as an active ingredient, usually at a minimum of 60% composition as the FDA mandates.

Depending on what type of alcohol is used, where and how it’s sourced, and what agents are used to mask the smell, you may encounter a host of different smells for your sanitizer--some of which may be a little unpleasant. 

Here are some reasons why your hand sanitizer might smell bad, and how to resolve the issue. 

Why Does Some Hand Sanitizer Smell Bad? 

Alcohol Hand Sanitizers 

Many hand sanitizers use ethanol as the active ingredient, which is distilled from natural sources like sugar or corn. This distillation process creates organic compounds like aldehydes and carboxyls that synthetic alcohols do not have, which give ethanol its characteristic scent, which isn't always too appealing. 

Isopropyl alcohol

Isopropyl alcohol, more commonly known as rubbing alcohol, is generally not sourced from the same materials so it doesn’t carry the same aromas associated with ethanol distillation.

It has a much harsher, classically "alcohol" scent and, therefore, is generally used to supplement ethanol, and not as the main alcohol in sanitizers but can still pack a punch. 

Fragrance Oils

The organic compounds in ethanol often don’t have a very pleasant odor, so fragrance oils and/or essential oils are added. Essential oils containing terpenes like limonene are very fragrant. This combination of terpenes, carboxyls, and aldehydes is also found in certain ethanol-based liquors like Tequila.   

 woman using hand sanitizer that smells bad


It's important to examine the quality of the fragrance oil or essential oil being used to mask the smell of alcohol.

Subpar fragrance oil or a diluted, impure essential oil will be further diluted when added to a sanitizer, greatly diminishing the scent and lessening its ability to mask the alcohol odors. 

Besides this, the aroma of the particular oil may be unpleasant to begin with, thus contributing to the foul scent. 


Other Factors To Consider


Apart from the alcohol and fragrance quality, other factors to consider when you find your hand sanitizer smell lacking is the packaging. Often, certain plastics used for bottling have a factory manufactured scent to them. This can be attributed to the chemicals and compounds used to make the plastic, and aren't always very attractive smelling.

Shipping Conditions

Heat and temperature can cause your hand sanitizer to smell. But why?

Conditions during shipment play a role in the smell of your hand sanitizer. Extreme heat can soften or break down the plastic bottle of your hand sanitizer.

Heating certain plastics containers can cause the release of aromatic chemicals that often smell like burned plastic. The chemically plastic smell will eventually infuse with your hand sanitizer. 

Heat can also affect the sanitizer components themselves by causing evaporation or chemically changing its structure.  

 things that smell bad

How To Choose Good Hand Sanitizer

An effective hand sanitizer's main function is to kill the bacteria on your hand. But an important secondary concern is how the hand sanitizer leaves your hands feeling and smelling. Especially since we're less likely to reapply if it dries out our skin or has an unpleasant scent. People generally like (of course) for things applied to our skin and bodies to smell good. 

So how do you pick a good sanitizer?

  • Make sure you're buying from a reputable source. Your sanitizer brand should follow all the FDA's guidelines for an effective sanitizer
  • Try to pick one that uses pure essential oils or natural fragrance oils for scent. Artificial scents aren't always universally appealing. 
  • Check that there's no damage to the packaging to limit the chance that something occurred during transit. 

Choose your sanitizer wisely, and avoid being stuck with a hand sanitizer that smells bad. Remember, though, that the main focus of a hand sanitizer purchase should be safety and efficacy. 


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