Scented hand sanitizer is the worst, so let’s stop using it.


At some point last year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, people began to Google a curious question: why does hand sanitizer smell bad?

What these poor souls learned was that an initial shortage of ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer gave way to an overabundance of smelly goo. As brands rushed to meet consumer demand, they reportedly used cheaper ethanol that is not purified of contaminants. This foreshortening often gives the final product a terrible smell.

So naturally, some companies have done something worse: they have added perfume. Hiding a foul odor with a sickening scent could make many consumers happy. It is a solution which also theoretically treats complaints that the disinfectant smells too much of strong alcohol, a grievance still alive on Twitter. This particular frustration has greater issues for people recovering from alcohol abuse, who may find the strong aroma of ethanol tempting. But those who welcome masking scents are blessed with a gift that others do not have. They can walk to the hand sanitizer pump at the grocery store and squeeze a drop of the product into their palm without worry.

Those of us who are sensitive to scents – a group that makes up almost a third of the public, according to studies and polls – face a different reality. A scented disinfectant can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, tearing, headaches, upset stomach, and temporary but all too real discomfort. When the disinfectant adheres aggressively to the hands, the scent lasts for hours. No amount of rubbing with soap extinguishes the smell.

Imagine trying to focus or relax while feeling the equivalent of a constant knock in the eye. Without relief, the effect can increase irritability, frustration, and anxiety. It may sound dramatic, but try to count how many times your hands come close to your nose or mouth in an hour or a day. These are dozens, if not hundreds, of tormenting little moments.

Some might argue that it is the responsibility of fragrance-sensitive people to bring their favorite hand sanitizer with them everywhere, a product that doesn’t mention “scent” as a mysterious ingredient. But that’s not always possible, whether it’s because your favorite alcohol spray has leaked all of its contents in your purse or because you accidentally left the house without sanitizer and found yourself in a donut shop with a hungry child. I can assure you that eating a Boston Cream donut is noticeably less pleasurable when your hands smell the scent that chokes the airways.

At the very least, companies could clearly label hand sanitizer as scented. Most people want to stop the superficial transmission of nasty germs, but become less eager to disinfect when it comes to their well-being. Aside from improved labeling, there are arguments for the universal use of an unscented hand sanitizer when supplied to the public.

The real problem is that companies need to mask the horrible smells of their products as they do not decontaminate ethanol. This shouldn’t be corrected by the scent, which some consumers might approve of as a benefit of brushing their hands with disinfectant, but others experience mild torture. The companies making the utilitarian product (versus the products lining the shelves of Bath & Body Works) should simply forgo the scents at their own expense, rather than charging consumers with discomfort.

When I asked Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., a faculty member at the Monell Center, a nonprofit science institute that studies taste and smell, about serious reactions to scented hand sanitizer, she said said experts suspected it was all a matter of individual experience.

Based on the available evidence, it appears that smells elicit a psychogenic response from people who are ready to have one. In other words, the chemical compounds that create an odor don’t necessarily have a direct effect on the body itself. (Exceptions can arise when a chemical causes a rash, for example.) Instead, some people’s brains process an odor and a poorly understood set of personality traits, like heightened sensory awareness or alertness. environmental, can somehow produce uncomfortable physical symptoms like migraines. , nausea and dizziness. For some reason, the body and the brain are not at all happy to be around the smell.

“I would never say these symptoms aren’t real, it’s just that they’re not a direct effect of that material, that aroma, that chemical on an organ in your body,” said Dalton.

Dalton also said that when odor masking isn’t done with precision, it is possible to “synergize” the scent so that it becomes even more disgusting. Moreover, efforts to mask offensive odors, for example in landfills or sewage treatment plants, are not based on science, according to Dalton. Instead, the marketing companies come up with a compound that they promise buyers will cover up the stench. In the end, it may not be able to reduce the quality of intensity of the bad smell. Surely everyone can remember a time when they encountered a cherry or rose scent stench. This is the case with the worst offenders in the hand sanitizer category. These bouquets smell a bit of alcohol, a bit of organic waste, and what one might charitably call a floral urinal cake.

“I would never say these symptoms are not real”

For those who prefer scented disinfectants, the fact that people’s negative reactions are psychogenic may seem like an argument against adopting scent-free versions as the norm. After all, a visceral physical reaction is unlikely to be caused by something serious like poisoning. (It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration has found “unacceptable levels” of dangerous contaminants like benzene and methanol in some disinfectants.)

What skeptics need to understand is that people sensitive to fragrances have no control over which disinfectant will trigger this special brand of scented misery. In general, they can avoid products they know are triggers, but things like dryer sheets and air fresheners are optional household items. Hand sanitizer intended for public use in grocery and retail stores, sporting events, and schools is much more essential.

There is also little remedy for those affected besides rubbing relentlessly until the aroma wears off. Dalton said soaking disinfectant-coated hands in vinegar might do the trick, but since the products don’t list the chemicals that make up their scents, it’s hard to know what will attract the offending molecules from someone’s skin. ‘a. A famous example of this is how water will not disrupt the chemical compound in hot peppers, but fatty acids in milk will achieve the desired cooling result.

Some people readily disinfect their hands and never smell a whiff of unpleasant odors. Lucky. Making an unscented version the universal public option would provide relief to people whose brains and bodies revolt when exposed to scented disinfectants. They would like to live their lives without worrying about how a squirt of hand sanitizer could ruin their day as well.


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