Having fingers that smell like onions can be unpleasant and embarrassing. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common reasons why fingers might take on an onion-like odor and provide tips for getting rid of the smell.
Onion Odor Causes
There are a few potential causes for fingers smelling like onions:
The most obvious source of onion finger odor is handling onions directly. When you chop, slice, or handle whole onions, the strong sulfuric compounds that give onions their distinctive smell are released into the air. These compounds can stick to your hands and get absorbed into the skin on your fingers. The onion smell can linger for hours after you handle them.
Touching Other Foods and Surfaces
Even if you haven’t directly handled onions, touching other foods and surfaces where onion residue is present can also cause an onion smell on your fingers. For example, eating a sandwich or burger that contains cooked onions can transfer some onion compounds onto your fingertips. Taking out the trash which contains onion peels can have a similar effect. Onion odors left on cutting boards, sink surfaces, kitchen towels and sponges can also be picked up on the skin.
If you don’t wash your hands frequently when cooking with onions, the smell can build up and get trapped under fingernails and on skin. Infrequent handwashing allows onion odors to persist and get stronger over time.
Foods with Onion Family Compounds
Onions aren’t the only food that can make your fingers smelly. Other vegetables in the allium family like garlic, chives, leeks and shallots contain similar sulfur compounds. Handling these foods when cooking can leave an onion-esque smell on hands.
In rare cases, an unexplained onion smell on the fingers and body can be caused by medical conditions. Metabolic disorders like trimethylaminuria (TMAU), where the body can’t break down trimethylamine, can cause bodily fluids to emit odors resembling garlic, onions or rotten fish. Kidney and liver problems can also lead to bad body odors. See a doctor if an onion smell persists with no obvious cause.
How to Get Rid of Onion Finger Smell
Here are some effective methods and remedies for removing onion odor from fingers:
Wash Hands with Soap and Water
Vigorously washing hands with soap and warm water can help rinse away onion compounds and oils that cause odor. Lather your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, scrubbing nails and skin surface. Rinse clean. Repeat if any onion smell remains. Soap helps dissolve the sulfur compounds responsible for odor.
Use Stainless Steel
Rubbing fingers vigorously on stainless steel for 30-60 seconds after handling onions can help remove odor. Stainless steel attracts and traps the smelly sulfur compounds. Simply rinsing fingers under cool water while rubbing a spoon or kitchen sink can help eliminate onion smell.
Lemon or Vinegar Rinse
Rinsing fingers with lemon juice or vinegar can counteract and neutralize onion odors. Lemon juice contains acids that react with the compounds that cause onion smell, eliminating odor. White vinegar has a similar effect. Gently rub lemon wedges or dilute vinegar solution over hands and fingers, then rinse.
Baking Soda Scrub
Make a paste of baking soda and water and use it to gently scrub fingers for 1-2 minutes. Baking soda will absorb and soak up persistent onion smells. Rinse thoroughly afterward. The slight grittiness of baking soda can help loosen odor trapped in skin and nails.
Apply a small amount of toothpaste to fingers and briskly rub hands together for 30-60 seconds before rinsing. The menthol in toothpaste can help mask onion smell. A toothbrush can also be used to scrub nails and cuticles.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help destroy some of the compounds responsible for onion odor on the hands. Rub a sanitizer thoroughly over fingers until dry. The alcohol smell can also cover up lingering onion scent.
Washing hands with soap containing essential oils like eucalyptus, peppermint, lemon or tea tree oil can help purge onion smell. The strong scents from essential oils can overpower and camouflage onion odor on fingers.
Make a dilute bleach solution using 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Soak fingers for 1 minute, then rinse thoroughly. Bleach can chemically react with and neutralize sulfur compounds left by onions. Be sure to dilute bleach properly to avoid irritation.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Soak fingers for 1 minute in undiluted apple cider vinegar. Rinse thoroughly afterward. The acetic acid in vinegar breaks down odor compounds. Cider vinegar also leaves a more pleasant smell compared to white vinegar.
Make a scrub by mixing 2 tablespoons salt with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Gently rub the mixture on fingers, allowing salt to exfoliate skin. Rinse clean. Salt has absorbent properties that can draw out deeply embedded onion smells.
Used coffee grounds can be gently rubbed on the fingers to remove onion smell. The grounds will work to absorb and eliminate odor. Rinse thoroughly after scrubbing.
Apply a rich hand cream or lotion after washing onion smell from fingers. The fats and oils seal in moisture and create a barrier to trap any residual onion compounds still escaping the skin.
Rub Hands on Stainless Steel
After washing up, run fingers vigorously on a stainless steel surface for 30-60 seconds. Stainless steel can grab and retain sulfur compounds and other odor molecules from fingers through a chemical reaction.
Preventing Onion Finger Odor
Using the right techniques when handling onions can help minimize or avoid onion finger odor:
- Wear gloves when prepping onions
- Rinse onion residue from hands frequently when chopping
- Use a sharp knife and avoid crushing onion as you slice
- Soak onion covered hands in vinegar water while prepping
- Wash cutting boards and utensils immediately after onion use
- Keep nails short to avoid trapping onion smell
- Open windows or use exhaust fan to vent onion vapors when cooking
When to See a Doctor
See your doctor if:
- Finger odor persists despite good hygiene
- Odor is extremely foul or unusual
- Odor is accompanied by other symptoms like nausea or jaundice
Persistent unexplained odor, especially when coupled with other symptoms, may indicate an underlying medical issue that requires treatment.
Onion finger is a common annoyance when cooking with onions and related foods. Thankfully, there are many DIY remedies using everyday ingredients that can effectively remove onion odor from fingers. Be diligent about washing hands while prepping onions, and use vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda or stainless steel to purge smell after cooking. If odor won’t go away or gets worse, seek medical advice to rule out any serious conditions.