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Perfumed hand sanitizer is the worst, so let's stop using it.

6 min read
Scented hand sanitizer really aggravates some people. Here's why.
At some point last year, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, people began Googling a curious question: Why does hand sanitizer smell bad?

What those poor souls learned was that an initial shortage of ethyl alcohol hand sanitizer gave way to a glut of foul-smelling goo. As brands rushed to meet consumer demand, they reportedly used cheaper ethanol that isn't purified of contaminants. That shortcut often makes the final product smell terrible.

So naturally, some companies did something arguably worse: they added fragrance. Masking a noxious odor with a cloying scent might make many consumers happy. It's a fix that also theoretically addresses complaints that sanitizer smells too much like hard liquor, a grievance that's still alive and well on Twitter. This particular frustration does have higher stakes for people in recovery from alcohol misuse, who may find the strong aroma of ethanol tempting. But those who welcome masking fragrances are blessed with a gift that others don't possess. They can walk up to the hand sanitizer pump at the grocery story and squeeze a blob of the stuff into their palm without worry.

Those of us who are sensitive to scents — a group that comprises nearly one third of the public, according to studies and surveys — face a different reality. Perfumed sanitizer can lead to symptoms like shortness of breath, watery eyes, headaches, stomachaches, and temporary yet all-too-real malaise. When sanitizer clings aggressively to the hands, the scent lingers for hours. No amount of scrubbing with soap extinguishes the smell.

Imagine trying to focus or relax while experiencing the equivalent of a constant poke in the eye. Without relief, the effect can increase irritability, frustration, and anxiety. This might seem dramatic, but try counting how many times your hands come close to your nose or mouth in an hour or a day. That's dozens, if not hundreds, of little tormenting moments.

Some might argue that the onus is on the scent-sensitive to bring…
Rebecca Ruiz
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