heads and cloves of garlic

Q. Your column is informative, practical and helpful. I have a problem and hope you have a solution. Preparing meals with onions and garlic always leaves the aroma on my hands. Then it becomes unpleasant for those around me.

I’ve tried lemon, vinegar, lotions and soaps. Nothing works. As I sniff my fingertips at bedtime, alas, onions and garlic!

A. Thanks for the compliment, but we may let you down on this one. We consulted our favorite French cook book expert and culinary wizard. He recommends rubbing your hands with coarse salt. (Regular salt might work just as well.) When you wash the salt off, the odor is supposed to rinse off as well.

Readers of our column have suggested rubbing fingers with toothpaste, vinegar or lemon juice. We have not found these recommendations very helpful.

Another solution is stainless steel. There products on the market including stainless steel bars, “soaps,” and “eggs” designed specifically to remove the odor of onions, garlic or fish from fingers. Prices range from about $4 to $8.

Here are some links:

Stainless Steel Link 1

Stainless Steel Link 2

We have been reprimanded for suggesting that people spend money on such products, however. Readers have offered these inexpensive options:

“The person who wanted to remove the smell of onions and garlic from her fingers should use her kitchen sink. The best way is to rub the hands on the stainless steel faucet or spout under cold water. Why waste money on a metal bar?”

One person sent us a charming sketch of a kitchen faucet, with instructions to wet fingers first, rub on the faucet, then rinse fingers to remove odors. She learned this trick in home ec class.

So why would stainless steel work to remove the odor of onions and garlic? It’s all about the sulfur or sulfides. That’s where the odor originates. When water comes into these compounds on your hands it turns them to sulfuric acid, so it is difficult to wash them off. Stainless steel binds to the sulfur molecules stuck to your hands after cutting onions or garlic and eliminates the odor. Just run your hands under cold water and then rub your stainless steel egg or the faucet or the metal sink for about 20 to 30 seconds. Let us know how that works.


There’s nothing greater than garlic. Just walking into the house when there’s garlic frying in the pan can lift our spirits and make our mouths water, especially on a cold, blustery day. But that distinctive aroma is, unfortunately, a lot less appealing second hand. Bad breath is the bane of garlic lovers like us.

Besides its benefits for the taste buds garlic has figured big in medical folklore for centuries. Greek and Roman physicians often prescribed it and now medical research suggests that may have been very wise. Garlic has the ability to keep blood cells from sticking together and clotting when they shouldn’t what’s more, if you take enough–about an ounce a day–you may be able to get your cholesterol and triglyceride levels down.

The trouble is that if you eat that much garlic you are not going to be welcome at many parties.  Co-workers, friends and lovers may all object to your very presence.

Many readers of this column have suggested ways of dealing with this dilemma. Dennis in New York recommends cutting the raw garlic clove into small pieces to be swallowed whole like a vitamin before meals. Margeret from Texas insists that the smell of garlic can be eliminated from the breath by eating fresh or frozen parsley. And George in Portland maintains that chlorophyll-containing toothpaste does the trick.

The dispute over garlic breath has been raging for a long time. Back in the 1930s doctors carried on a heated debate on this topic in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association. One group of researchers maintained that garlic breath originated solely in the mouth as a result of particles sticking to the teeth, tongue and tonsils. Their prescription–a popular mouthwash of the day which was supposed to “deodorize” the garlic particles.

The claim was hotly contested by other physicians who maintained that the smelly volatile chemicals of garlic are absorbed from the stomach into the bloodstream and exhaled from the lungs with each breath.

A team at Yale finally put the issue to rest by reporting the results of their research. First, they enclosed fresh raw garlic inside double capsules to that no particles stayed in the mouth.

The experimental subjects who swallowed these garlic capsules as if they were vitamins developed distinctive garlic breath within two hours. Vigorous mouthwashing did not eliminate the smell.

The coup de grace was the experiment they carried out in the labor and delivery rooms at the hospital. Women in the first stage of labor took garlic capsules which produced garlic breath. When their babies were born, they too had garlic breath which lasted 4 to 20 hours.

Obviously, swallowing your garlic whole, as Dennis suggests, won’t get around the problem. And there’s no way that toothpaste or mouthwash can do anything more than temporarily cover or mask the garlic fragrance.

So what should you do if you want to indulge in the joys of garlic? Some of our column readers maintain that “deodorized” garlic pills are a good way to get the health benefits of garlic without the social penalties.

But internationally renowned garlic chemist Dr. Eric Block told us that he and his colleagues have not detected the beneficial active ingredients “in dehydrated garlic powder, nor have we found them in pills, oils, extracts or other proprietary garlic preparations.”

Until we hear differently, we’ll take it from Dr. Block: “For now the beneficial effects attributed to garlic are best obtained from fresh garlic.” Enjoy your garlic with friends and you won’t have to worry about offending anyone!

If you would like to learn more about the health benefits of garlic, check out our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies: Q&As for Your Common Ailments. You will discover some amazing uses for garlic (including getting rid of warts and lowering blood pressure).

Share your own solution to garlic & onion breath below? If you have a magic solution, other readers are going to want to know your secret!

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  1. Brendan
    Stavanger via Wales

    Hmmm….. I think it might have been back in the days when onions were not controlled by supermarket standards, and we bought them from the green-grocers (gosh, that words is starting to sound archaic!). Anyway the onions varied a lot more in strength, and cutting up some of the really strong ones was like being exposed to tear gas. I’ve always been pretty immune, but I distinctly recall my (Irish) Mum, cutting onions with a stainless steel tea-spoon in her mouth to help hold back the tears.

    Aside from an empathic response to her tears, the budding scientist in me did find it slightly bemusing that such a solution could work. Casting around for any science relating to how stainless steel soaps might work, has now reminded me of it. Although we have hypotheses relating to the phenomenon, we still appear to be lacking in any detailed scientific experiments.

    Still the image of my Mum with teaspoon in her mouth has left me with a smile.

  2. Emeka

    I am surprised nobody has mentioned the magic effect of apple in de-odorising garlic which I read a few days .

  3. Alice Perry

    This really works and costs NOTHING. Turn on your cold water faucet and stroke your hands on the faucet and couple of times. The smell goes off your hands. Works every time.

  4. frann

    I also have found that rubbing my hands on my stainless sink gets rid of odors on my hands. Been using this technique for years. Bonus – cleans the sink of stick-on too.

  5. bg

    To remove onions, garlic or fish smell from hands – wet hands, sprinkle salt on hands then rub a stainless steel butter knife under cold running water. Works every time!

  6. Gerald G

    If you will use Goop Hand Cleaner it will take any smell off of human hands. It can be purchased in any automobile parts store or Wal-Mart. It will take the fish smell off of hands after cleaning fish.
    It is a lanoline cleaner. The only problem I have with it is heat turns it into a liquid. Just take a table spoon full of the Goop and rub on your hands until it liquefies. Rub for several seconds. Wash your hands and the unwanted smell is gone.
    We keep a can by the washing machine to remove grass stains from “little boys blue jeans knees.” It will remove grease from hands and carpets. I cannot live without it. I have not found any stain or smell it will not remove. Sometimes you have to work it into cloth and let it sit an hour before putting the garment into a washing machine. Try it. You will like it. It is very cheap in price.

  7. MC

    Yes, stainless steel spoons do work great for removing garlic or onion odor from hands. I rub the spoons with my fingers under running cold water! I haven’t tried the spoons for garlic/onion breath, though. I’ll try it next time I think about it!

  8. BJD

    I’ve discovered that wiping used coffee grounds all over my hands, and then washing as usual, will remove much of the garlic/onion odor.

  9. MR

    I use latex medical gloves (powder-free) when I cut up onions, etc. Works great!

  10. mnm

    I cook with onions and garlic frequently and I always grab a stainless steel soup or serving spoon and rub my hands on it under running water, with or without soap. I’ve doing this for years and works every time.

  11. dab in Florida

    Since I regularly use rubber gloves to keep my hands in better condition it’s just automatic for me to slip them on before cutting garlic, onion, meat, eggs. It’s quicker than any cleaning process after the fact. Think they are too bulky? Just experiment to see what brand or type you like best.

  12. rg

    Washing your hands with COLD water and soap does remove garlic odor.

  13. Ebm

    I have bought stainless steel eggs at the Dollar store, even in Germany at Euro store. Specialty stores charge much more,
    naturally. Kitchen sinks and faucets are full of germs, unless disinfected/scrubbed first. Gotta wash the egg also.
    I have used the ss-egg as deodorant and it works for me (separate egg in bathroom!) and a scrubbed clean one in my
    mouth, and, yes — it took the garlic odor away and it was not bad in the morning. Try it, nothing to loose but garlic odor.

  14. Donnie

    I’m allergic to onions and garlic, and have to totally avoid them. Including small amounts in food products. I always know when my husband eats anything that contains onion or garlic when he eats away from home. Not only is the smell on his breath for awhile, but the odor is also on his skin, and in his perspiration for many more hours.

  15. Jennifer

    The cook in our sorority house at college swore by rubbing hands and fingers with parsley — I’m sure the fresh type, not the dried jar kind.

  16. Nan

    I use my stainless faucet for this all the time! Helps with bleach also, but not quite as well as with the onions.

  17. VML

    One day after cleaning fresh caught fish, my husband thoroughly washed his hands with soap, rinsed and started to dry his hands. I told him to wipe his hands on our stainless steel kitchen sink before drying them to get rid of the fish smell. He thought I was crazy. After doing so he remarked the fish smell on his hands was gone. He still laughs in disbelief every time he does this. We both do this after cutting onions and garlic also. Works like a charm! My mother in law told me about this years ago.

  18. KG

    Hold a teaspoon and dip your hands under water. It’s amazing!

  19. Tony NZ

    An old fisherman’s trick from New Zealand. Rinse hands in Listerine to get rid of fish smell. Would also work with Garlic. Cheers

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