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Why Some Hand Sanitizers May Have A Foul Odor


Gregory Han ordered one gallon of hand sanitizer from an online retailer early in this pandemic. It got there more than two months later. And when he opened it, oh, did it stink. It was completely unlike the smell of the main hand sanitizer brands that he knew and, you know, accepted. Gregory Han wanted to get to the bottom of this malodorous mystery, as he called it in his article for the Wirecutter. He joins us now. Mr. Han, thanks so much for being with us.

GREGORY HAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: First of all, could you please describe this overpowering aroma?

HAN: Oh, well, it reminded me of going to the state fair and being around the barnyard animals. It was a very, very organic smell, a little bit of rot.

SIMON: Oh, great. And you found that this one kind of no-name brand that you had wasn't alone that way, was it?

HAN: No, no. Anytime I found hand sanitizer when I was out shopping, I would buy a bottle or two - whatever was permitted. The brands that were available were ones that I'd never seen before, but they all had some funky odor to them.

SIMON: Look; we don't do commercials. I don't get a check from Purell. But, you know, they smell - and other kind of the big names - smell pretty neutral. What did you discover made these off brands smell a little bit more pungent?

HAN: I discovered that a lot of these no-name brands that were rushed out into the market didn't have the same filtration - carbon filtration that big brands like Purell and Germ-X go through to leave it very pleasant, and also the addition of formulated perfumes to counteract any smell that's left. So these new ones were rushed purely from ethanol manufacturers without any of this processing, and that's why it smelled the way it does.

SIMON: And I gather you also learned something about the way we smell things.

HAN: Yeah. I think there's a level of expectation of what we think hand sanitizer should smell like. And so when it delivers something different, a lot of people get upset. But I had one friend who found the one that I didn't like, and she said she loved it. She said it smelled like overripe mangoes. And she said she would take the bottle off my hands if I wanted to.

SIMON: Mr. Han, are you still using the hand sanitizer that smells like the county fair?

HAN: (Laughter) I am. I'm using it in a spray bottle to disinfect household surfaces rather than my hands. I think it's a little too unpleasant, although as a note, one of the beneficial aspects of having something so stinky is you don't touch your face. But it is also so unpleasant that I don't want to be anywhere around it.

SIMON: In sum, what have you learned both about, you know, the American market system and hand sanitizers and our aroma expectations, for that matter?

HAN: One of the things I had asked a big brand like Purell is when we would return to norm, the normal expectations of seeing what we like and know on the shelves, and they said in the coming months. And so what I've learned is that we have to be adaptable, that we have to accept some of these things won't smell the same as before, but they work. And as long as they meet the requirements of 60% to 95% alcohol content, that's the most important thing is using the alcohol-based hand rub right now.

SIMON: Gregory Han writes for Design Milk. Thank you so much, and good sniffing to you, sir.

HAN: Yeah, smell you later.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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