Can stainless steel and running water remove the smell of garlic?

Dear Cecil:

I've heard that rubbing one's hands on a stainless-steel item under running water removes the smell of garlic. Does this really work, and if so, how?

Cecil replies:

I’m as bad as the people who believe in the pain-relieving powers of magnets when I say this, but here’s what I found out so far: nobody knows why, but yeah, it seems to work. Based on the usual rigorous home experiments, the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board agrees that stainless steel not only gets rid of garlic smell, it also gets rid of any other kind of smell. This report from Larasaurus:

Stainless steel worked great on garlic smell, yadda yadda. But what was really cool was our friend (and masseur) Jonathan showed up straight from a massage he’d given some icky old guy who wore a lot of icky-old-guy cologne. Jonathan reeked — I mean, reeked of it. He’d already washed his hands twice, and he washed them again after the smell was still knocking me out and I gave him shit about it. So we had him try the SS treatment. Now, it didn’t totally eliminate the cologne smell, but it reduced the offensivity factor by about ten: you couldn’t smell it unless you were sitting next to Jonathan, instead of across the room from him. True story.”

Theoretical underpinnings for these results are lacking, however. A couple stabs: (1) The steel acts as an abrasive. Boring but plausible. (2) The nickel in the stainless steel causes ionization, which fools the nose into thinking the smell is gone. You know any explanation containing the word “ionization” has got to be a crock. But that’s all we’ve got for now.

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