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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Stink Molecules

By October 15, 2010

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Skunks naturally produce stink molecules. (PDImages.com)Have you ever wondered what types of chemicals are likely to stink? Certain classes of molecules tend to be smellier than others. Volatile organic compounds top the list. Some of these molecules don't just smell bad in their own right, but they may react with water or air to produce other nasty smells. For example, ammonium sulfide, the active ingredient in most stink bombs, reacts with moisture in the air to produce smelly ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gas. Here's a list of some common stink molecules and the odor associated with them.


Amines - organic molecules containing a basic nitrogen

  • ethylamine - fishy smell
  • putrescine - rotten meat smell
  • cadaverine - rotten meat smell

Carboxylic Acids - organic acids that contain at least one carboxyl group

  • propionic acid - sweat
  • butyric acid - rancid butter
  • valeric acid
  • caproic acid - old cheese smell

Mercaptans (Thiols) - organosulfur compounds containing a S-H bond

  • methanethiol
  • ethanethiol - deer urine smell
  • propanethiol
  • butanethiol - skunk spray
  • pentanethiol

Other Compounds Containing Sulfur

  • hydrogen sulfide - rotten eggs odor
  • ammonium sulfide - rotten eggs odor

Heterocyclic Compounds - cyclic compounds that include at least two different elements in the ring

  • indole
  • skatole - feces smell
If you know of other molecules to add to the list or can describe the odor of those on the list, please post a response.

Smelliest Molecule? | Stink Bomb Recipes


December 20, 2010 at 9:58 pm
(1) aya says:

what about the smell of rotten fruit?

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