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Here's why your hand sanitizer stinks

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a flood of new hand sanitizer brands, but some don't smell very pleasant.

Some hand sanitizers are accompanied by an interesting scent. 
Angela Lang/CNET

You've likely noticed there's a lot of hand sanitizer out there that doesn't smell too great. A colleague described the scent of one convenience store-brand product as smelling like "bottom-shelf trash vodka." It turns out that repugnant scent, though quite disagreeable, is actually a natural byproduct in the creation of some hand sanitizers, according to a report last week by Wirecutter. 

The coronavirus pandemic has made many supplies such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper scarce in stores and online. As a result, several new companies have jumped at the opportunity to launch their own products as major brands like Purell and Germ-X are quickly wiped off of shelves. Unfortunately, many of these products emit an odd scent.

"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 Alpha Aromatics, a fragrance manufacturer that creates additives for masking sanitizer odors, told Wirecutter. 

"[Ethyl alcohol] production is highly regulated. It stinks because these new brands -- many made by distillers who've pivoted from producing drinking alcohol to meet public demand for hand sanitizer -- are making and using denatured ethanol. This ethanol costs significantly less than ethanol filtered using activated carbon filtration, which would typically remove almost all contaminants and the malodor with it."

Denatured ethanol is also reportedly mixed with a variety of chemicals like methanol, acetone and denatonium so people won't drink it. 

Even if you can't tolerate the scent, major health agencies and experts have warned against making your own hand sanitizer at home. So as much as it stinks, you'll just have to put up with smelling like cheap liquor sometimes. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.