Why does hand sanitizer smell bad?

If you haven't been acquainted by the hair-singeing aroma that gel hand sanitizer expels, then you quite possibly may be living on another planet. Lately, we have all been exposed to hand sanitizer whether it's on our own hands or the hands of someone next to us due to this worldwide coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19.

Pre-COVID sanitizer seemed to smell less like a rotting bag of potato skins and more like clean, tamed alcohol.

Right? We can't be the only ones to notice.

So, the question that's on many of our minds is this–why does hand sanitizer smell so badly now?

Well–we know why, and we'll share some information that shaped the smelly hand sanitizer landscape we have come to know.

Hand Sanitizer Shortage

Clinician testing for COVID
Clinician testing for COVID - Image provided by Darko Stojanovic

By late February/early March all 50 states had reported cases of COVID-19, including Alabama. President Trump declared a national emergency, funding was given to boost the economy, and hospitals and clinics needed to remain clean and sterilized to fend off the novel coronavirus.

This quickly urged national brands like Purell and Germ-X to remove their products from public shelves and pass them onto healthcare workers and others on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.

This great and necessary cause however created a great problem for individuals as well as essential businesses who now lacked the necessary cleaning supplies (hand sanitizer among the top) to remain open, having now to abide by new sanitization policies and mandates. This huge hand sanitizer shortage prompted the FDA and WHO to authorize the manufacturing of hand sanitizer by unregistered pharmaceutical compounders as long as they adhere to their strict formula requirements.

Why Does Hand Sanitizer Stink?

It's available now–but, why does hand sanitizer stink? It seemed to not smell this bad before, so who mixed the fish oil into the batch?

Person dispensing hand sanitizer
Who even thought about hand sanitizer before 2020? Image by Luisella Planeta Leoni

We were asking ourselves similar questions after smelling a batch of liquid hand sanitizer a few months back as we acquired a few 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer to be able to provide protection to our customers (who are comprised predominantly of businesses) during the brink of the U.S. 2019 coronavirus pandemic.

Turns out, the FDA formula allowed for Isopropyl Alcohol, as well as Ethyl Alcohol (Ethanol). Isopropyl Alcohol, as it happens, is the kind of alcohol that smells more clean and less like a burning meat heap. Ethanol is often made from organic material such as corn, thus the abrasively potent smell. What makes matters even stinkier is that the filtration process from some of these "popup hand sanitizer manufacturers" is lacking the quality control their big brother brands have.

WHO Recommended Hand Sanitizer Formula

What isn't in the FDA's precise formulas is the inclusion of additives such as fragrances, due to possibly lowering effectiveness as well as increasing risk of ingestion from children.

Here is the simple hand sanitizer formula from WHO: