Why hand sanitizer might smell like tequila or vodka

Prior to the pandemic, you probably didn’t give much thought to the scent of the sanitizer you slathered on your hands. That’s because the big-name sanitizer brands, like Purell and Germ-X that were easy to get your hands on pre-pandemic, smell fairly neutral.

Now, amid COVID-19 — and with more brands of sanitizers hitting the market to keep pace with our heightened disinfection demands — you may have been caught off-guard by some of these gels that have particularly foul odors.

Slather on a new sanitizer and your nostrils just may be assaulted with the pungent smell of tequila — and not the caramel notes of a nice reposado, but rather the kind that’s reminiscent of cheap shots in college. Or maybe it’s vodka that your olfactory senses are picking up on. Or perhaps it’s a farmhouse funk.

So, why exactly do hand sanitizers suddenly stink? And, more importantly, does it mean something is wrong with them?

As it turns out, many of these no-name brands were rushed out into the market and didn’t go through the same carbon filtration process that bigger brands employ to leave a pleasant scent, according to Gregory Han, who explored the mystery of stinky sanitizers for The New York Times’ Wirecutter. Also absent from these off-brand sanitizers are formulated perfumes to help counteract leftover smells.


“So these new ones were rushed purely from ethanol manufacturers without any of this process,” Han explained on an episode of NPR.

But that doesn’t mean these stinky sanitizers aren’t doing their job. In fact, not only is it OK for your hand sanitizer to smell of liquor, it’s probably a good sign, according to Mark Coster, who has a PhD in organic chemistry and two decades of chemistry teaching and research at universities.

“Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is the same type of alcohol that is found in all alcoholic beverages,” explains Coster, who runs Organic Chemistry Explained. “Since hard liquors such as vodka and tequila have high alcohol content, it is not surprising for hand sanitizers to smell like liquor.”

During the COVID-19 health crisis, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued guidance for the temporary production of alcohol-based hand sanitizers by some companies and pharmacies that can help meet the demand for these products.

As part of the FDA’s protocols, ethanol may be used in hand sanitizers if it is produced using fermentation and distillation processes, and no other additives or chemicals are added to the ethanol. That means the latest makers of hand sanitizers don’t have the green light to add ingredients to mask the pungent smell of sanitizers.


So, what exactly causes that pungent smell in your sanitizer? If it smells like liquor or rotten garbage (or a combo of both!), you can probably blame the natural byproduct of ethanol that’s being made from corn, sugar cane, beets and other organic sources, Bryan Zlotnik, of Alpha Aromatics, told The New York Times.

Zlotnik, whose company specializes in additive solutions to mask unpleasant odors in sanitizers, explains that ethyl alcohol production is highly regulated and that many of the new brands that are out on the market have shifted from producing alcohol (to drink) to making hand sanitizer. They’re using denatured ethanol, which is much cheaper than the ethanol that’s filtered using activated carbon filtration.

So, while we get through the pandemic, stinky sanitizers fall into the same “bizarre but true” category as the toilet paper shortage of last spring.