Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Why does ethanol-based hand sanitizer smell bad?

From the New York Times' "Wirecutter", this skepticism-inducing set of statements about off smells coming from hand sanitizers: 
...I contacted Bryan Zlotnik of Alpha Aromatics, a perfume manufacturer specializing in additive solutions used to mask unpleasant odors in sanitizers, for an explanation as to why there has been a sudden proliferation of unpleasant-smelling hand sanitizer. 
“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,” explained Zlotnik. “[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.” 
Those organic contaminants aren’t the only reason unfiltered and denatured ethanol smells downright foul. According to Zlotnik, denatured ethanol is also intentionally tainted with an unpalatable cocktail of chemicals (denaturants) such as methanol, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, and denatonium to make it undrinkable. In other words: The base material is intentionally stinky.
I could easily believe that organic sources could provide a bunch of various low molecular weight amines and thiols that could give a pretty nasty funk to ethanol. But methanol, acetone and MEK? No way. Does denatonium bromide have a smell, especially at the low levels used in hand sanitizer? I doubt it. Readers, your thoughts? 


  1. I also agree that denatonium bromide almost certainly does not have a smell. Are there any salts with well documented smells?

  2. Well, at least they're not dumping cyanides and other goodies in it like they did in Prohibition.

  3. Yeah denatonium doesn't smell, although if you're producing a batch with it you may notice a bitter taste in your mouth even if you're very careful. Probably just byproducts of fermentation.

  4. I'm kind of fond of the bourbon-based hand sanitizers that have been recently created by distillers along the KY Bourbon Trail.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20