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Top 10: Worst Lab Smells

Top 10: Worst Lab Smells

Time for a bit of fun. Here are my top 10 worst lab smells, in reverse order. Please share your worst smells in the discussion!

10. I’ll start off gently with Latex Gloves. Not truly a offensive smell, just a little off-putting

9. Ever stewed a turnip for far too long? No. If you did, it would smell like autoclaved cell culture waste. Yuck.

8. Looks deceptively nice, pink and sherbert-like, but powered Virkon has a very strange smell. Especially if you are unfortunate enough to get a little up your nose. Paradoxically, I think the solution smells quite nice.

7. Moving up the food chain to something that might start to put you off your lunch: Fly food. What do they put in that stuff? Year-old bananas?

6. One thing that did put me off my lunch when I was an undergraduate was formaldehyde. I had to walk past the anatomy department every day to get to the sandwich shop and never felt much like eating after that.

5. Into the top five with one of the big hitters: Ammonia. Nauseating in low concentration and if you are lazy enough to adjust pH with conc. Ammonia outside the hood it can almost knock you off your feet.

4. Paraformaldehyde is at number 4 for for me for a very specific reason. I once spent an afternoon doing fixations with paraformalde with, stupidly, my head in the hood (see no. 10 in 10 Stupid Lab Safety Mistakes). I paid for it with a weekend in which everything tasted like paraformaldehyde, and since then it has always been one of my worst smells.

3. This top 10 could be peppered with organic solvents, but I decided to just put in my worst: N-Butanol. Nasty, sickly stuff.

2. The only reason that Cadaverine is not number one is that it is not used in everyday protocols (thank goodness), but it is possibly THE most foul-smelling thing I have ever come across. Cadaverine is a compound produced during the decomposition of animal tissue (it is decarboxylated lysine), and is partially responsible for the horrible smell of rotting flesh. It smells like decomposition in a bottle. Nice.

1. I think we could all guess that Beta-mercaptoethanol would be near the top of this list. It is top because it is such a gut-wrenching smell, but also because it is one that seems to be released into the lab at least once a year (when the new PhD students come in). I myself participated spectacularly in that ritual in the first year of my PhD by dropping and smashing a bottle of BME, triggering a full-scale evacuation of the lab. Ah, the memories.

Now I KNOW you want to share your worst lab smells, go on… hit us with your worst!


  1. sina on March 20, 2019 at 10:06 pm

    who can tell me why temed smells like a child pee on himself ?

  2. PS on March 16, 2018 at 7:12 pm

    I work with dithiothreitol (DTT) all the time, and I can say it smells almost as bad as BME. Though for me, the smell always reminds me of a college roommate who was (a) obsessed with making his own cannabis edibles and (b) was very flatulent. DTT smells exactly like my old roommate’s weed-farts.

    • PS on March 16, 2018 at 7:14 pm

      Also, a corowker of mine once had a job extracting DNA from human urine and fecal samples. That couldn’t have been too nice. Especially the one time that he accidentally had the vacuum pump running in reverse and fired a 3 mL urine sample at the ceiling.

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