Why Does Hand Sanitizer Smell Like Tequila Or Vodka? (Hint: It Shouldn't.)

Alcohol distilleries have been making sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the regulations you should know about.

Back in March, as COVID-19 swept the world and rendered hand sanitizer a daily necessity, hand-cleaning devotees took to social media to give voice to a commonly undiscussed aspect of the product ― its smell.

They’re still wondering. “Why does all the hand sanitizer smell like tequila now?” asked a Twitter user in September. “Tequila-scented hand sanitizer has got to be the first thing outlawed in 2021,” wrote another.

The aroma could be attributed to the spirit industry’s shift to producing hand sanitizer in the early days of the pandemic. Back in March, in an effort to bolster the surging demand for hand sanitizer, distilleries stepped up to make the product.

Take Philip McDaniel, CEO of Florida-based St. Augustine Distillery, who realized he could help confront a national crisis pretty early on.

“We were fighting a war against this thing and there was no hand sanitizer,” McDaniel recalled. “I started researching and realized we can make this stuff internally ― so we started doing it.”

To make any sort of liquor, spirit companies begin with distilled alcohol, which is ethanol. Ethanol also happens to be the primary ingredient in hand sanitizer, a fact that positioned the liquor industry to enter the disinfectant market.

Owner and distiller Brian Ferguson loads a batch of alcohol into a still while making hand sanitizer at the Flag Hill Distillery in Lee, New Hampshire, on May 8. The distillery, which usually produces whisky, rum and vodka, temporarily suspended normal operations to manufacture hand sanitizer.
Owner and distiller Brian Ferguson loads a batch of alcohol into a still while making hand sanitizer at the Flag Hill Distillery in Lee, New Hampshire, on May 8. The distillery, which usually produces whisky, rum and vodka, temporarily suspended normal operations to manufacture hand sanitizer.

By definition, ethanol is an organic chemical compound that is colorless and, although boasting a characteristic odor, shouldn’t smell like any specific spirit. Which is to say that if your hand sanitizer smells like tequila, bourbon or vodka, it’s not because the products share ingredients. It’s because the company selling you the disinfectant may not be following proper production procedures.

But let’s start from the beginning.

How liquor brands got into the sanitizer business

McDaniel’s decision to shift to hand sanitizer production was typical of the spirit industry’s response to the pandemic. As companies like Purell faced an unprecedented surge in demand that depleted inventory, distillers like McDaniel swept in to fight the shortage and made a few bucks doing so.

It made sense for two reasons. First, as restaurants and bars were forced to shut down, distillers had to contend with major market losses. On the other hand, these same distillers enjoyed relatively easy access to the ingredients needed to create hand sanitizer, especially ethanol.

Once the government realized that the hand sanitizer shortage was going to be a real problem and that companies usually devoted to other pursuits had the ability to ease the scarcity, it rushed regulations surrounding the new endeavors.

The government embraced the spirit industry’s moves, McDaniel explained, and focused on requirements for “a really safe formula.”

That formula is found in the Food and Drug Administration’s official ”Temporary Policy for Preparation of Certain Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer Products During the Public Health Emergency (COVID-19).″ It specifies ethanol or United States pharmacopeia-grade isopropyl alcohol, plus glycerol or food chemical codex, hydrogen peroxide and sterile water.

If your sanitizer smells like liquor, it may not be completely up to standard

The type of ethanol used in hand sanitizers is government-regulated, with the FDA solely permitting alcohol “produced using fermentation and distillation processes typically used for consumable goods, and that is made in a facility used for producing consumable foods.” The product must be an aqueous solution and not a “gel, foam or aerosol spray.” The packaging has to seal in a way that prevents evaporation of the ingredients.

McDaniel, whose company no longer makes sanitizer, explained that the distilled alcohol that was the basis of his usual product is basically “a sugar source that has been converted to ethanol or alcohol through a process of fermentation.”

Distillers found themselves able to easily and swiftly create hand sanitizer with the FDA-specified ingredients.

“Basically, you’re taking the neutral spirit that you use to make [vodka or tequila or another spirit] and you use it as your basis to make hand sanitizer,” McDaniel explained. “It’s called neutral because it’s neutral of color, it’s neutral of flavor and it’s neutral of taste. Technically, it should have zero” aroma.

It’s important to note that the FDA directive states that hand sanitizer producers should not “add other active or inactive ingredients, such as ingredients to improve the smell or taste, due to the risk of accidental ingestion in children.” The policy adds: “Different or additional ingredients may impact the quality and potency of the product.”

Yet, as a barrage of complaints on Twitter suggests, some of the products we’ve been stuffing into our bags, homes and cars do smell faintly like tequila. How is that possible?

McDaniel said the smell could only have two explanations: “Whoever is doing that is either not making it according to the FDA formula or they’re going through a totally different approval process [by which] you have to get a license. It’s a more intense process.”

FDA spokesperson Jeremy Kahn explained that there have been three ways to produce and market hand sanitizer since the start of the pandemic. The first involves following the temporary FDA policy. The second method is to comply with 1994 regulations for over-the-counter topical antiseptics. The third option is to submit a new drug application.

Hand sanitizer produced by manufacturers following instructions laid out in the FDA’s temporary policy should not have any sort of odor, Kahn said. If they do, they are not up to standard.

The CDC suggests applying sanitizer to the palm of one hand, rubbing it all over the surfaces of your hands and waiting for it to dry.
The CDC suggests applying sanitizer to the palm of one hand, rubbing it all over the surfaces of your hands and waiting for it to dry.

“Firms that wish to market a hand sanitizer with a scent would not be able to market their product under the temporary policies,” Kahn explained.

Fragrant hand sanitizers have either been marketed since before COVID-19 under the 1994 rules for topical antiseptics, or they don’t comply with the FDA’s guidance, Kahn said.

Distilleries have largely stepped away from the sanitizing business

“At the beginning, there was all this demand and no supply,” recalled McDaniel. “You could make it, charge for some, give some away and you were doing good.”

That changed around June or July, he said, when existing manufacturers like Purell and Johnson & Johnson “came back with a vengeance” with output that caught up with the roaring demand. “They turned their factories on 24/7 and they were pumping out the product,” he added.

McDaniel said he’s done with hand sanitizer, for now. “We jumped in to do it because we wanted to help save our community and keep people safe,” he said.

The best way to use hand sanitizer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a thorough guide for using hand sanitizer. It points out that alcohol-based sanitizers “can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations,” but they do not eliminate all types of toxins (think heavy metals and pesticides) and may not work on extremely dirty or greasy hands. That is to say that soap and water are the best hand-washing option. But if that’s not available, opt for a sanitizer that boasts at least 60% alcohol.

The CDC suggests applying the sanitizer to the palm of one hand, rubbing it all over the surfaces of both hands and waiting for it to dry. That process is the same whether you’re using a scented or fragrance-free version of the product.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.