Ask LH: Why Do These Chinese Products Smell So Weird?

Dear Lifehacker, I often buy products from China online. I always get amazing deals with free shipping but one thing that irritates me is the plastic/rubber smell that is associated with most Chinese products. What exactly is that smell? I usually have to aerate the products for some time before the stench has reduced and it is ready for use. Any ideas? Thanks, Plastic Fantastic

Factory picture from Shutterstock

Dear PF,

We pestered Dr Timothy Nicholson from the University of Queensland with your odd query. Nicholson is an expert in chemical engineering who specialises in polymers and molecular modelling. In a nutshell, he said the smell you refer to is most likely the result of various processes used to treat plastics during the manufacturing process:

Most plastics aren't fit for consumers in their unfinished state, so manufacturers add other chemicals to improve the stability of the material. This includes things like anti-oxydents, plasticisers to make things softer, processing aids that help in the manufacturing process and plastic sunblock to improve durability. Often these smaller molecules will seep out of the plastic, which causes the distinctive rubbery smell.

We also asked Nicholson why/if this smell is more prevalent in Chinese made products. He suggested this could be the result of less stringent quality control as well as the effects of sitting in transit for longer periods.

When products have been left in airtight packaging for a long time, the volatile molecules start to build up. When you open the packaging, they all get released at once, which means you get a much stronger waft than usual. This is one possible reason why the smell would be more noticeable in Chinese products, which have to travel a long way to get here.

Sounds pretty on the nose to us!

Cheers Lifehacker

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    ... So to get this straight, he's saying that products direct from manufacturers in china are sitting in transit.. longer.. than products from stores (largely made in China).. as a justification?

    Seems like he just wanted to give any answer that would shut you up, and expected it would just fly because of his authoritative status you've given him in your eyes... Or maybe logic just isn't relevant to people of his intellectual standing.

    I always wonder whether I am about to get a disease when i open a package from eBay... I don't know why... I just do.

      The Simpsons perhaps? I recommend shooting at any clouds that may pop out of your purchases

      Beware of packages that have green-looking clouds with little dots floating around in them ;)

    Noticing this smell is prevalent with "cheap" items from China, but is absent from more expensive items - i can only suggest it's a side effect of the cheap manufacturing process that causes the smell. Nothing to do with transit times..

      I've noticed that as well

      Also that smell can't be good for anyone, I'd really like a total breakdown of what chemicals are used and if they're even safe for living organisms. My local shopping center has this smell now because of so many stores selling cheap stuff, so I don't go there anymore

      Meanwhile in china..

      The admission by China's Environment ministry came in a five-year plan on tackling pollution.
      “In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems such as ‘cancer villages’” the document says.

      Cheap products today and expensive medical bills tomorrow!

      To be fair, Nicholson only said this *could* be a cause for the smell. He also mentioned quality control, which would translate to cheaper manufacturing processes.

    India does the same thing with their cardboard.
    We Import a lot of stuff from china, Pakistan and India, and you can tell where an item comes from by it's smell.

    This is the reason I avoid Kmart, I can smell the fumes just passing by the store outside

    And who registered the nickname 'bill'
    That's my goto anonymous name!

      That smell in Kmart is at its worst around the shoe / sneaker section. Sometimes it feels like its difficult to breathe around there. I've noticed the same smell in other cheap shoe shops. Can somebody please investigate? Can't be good for the staff.

    I shudder to think what cheap but possibly toxic substances are being added to the plastic instead of the ones used by Australian manufacturers.
    Seriously - lead paint on kids toys, melamine in milk.... would you put it past them?

    Thanks for answering my question LH. :D
    I hope it doesn't give me cancer.

    also a lot of bulk import goods get fumigated before they get to the store and the fumigant that is used (methyl bromide FWIW) reacts to rubber and some plastics and creates a godawful smell if you can't air it out properly, and since the product is usually stuck in a plastic bag in a box before, during, and after fumigation, that's usually the case. Don't worry too much though, the smell remains long after the gas has dispersed so it's not going to kill you.

      How do I remove the smell from my clothes it's every wear

    Our office had a cheap Chinese made tub chair in the foyer. It smelled really bad, like there was a bit of rat carcass in the seat padding.

    That foyer was also where job interviewees waited. Many of them must have been unnerved wondering what they had stepped in, or if they had BO.

    Sounds like the scientist hasn't got a clue what he's talking about because it isn't relevant to anything that was asked-
    The actual smell you are smelling is normally a chemical because without it the substances ( rubber, plastic etc. would dry out faster) they usually smell of gasoline or anti freeze or even formaldehyde, which is what they are because china doesn't have limits on chemicals and carcinogens as the scientist did mention. They don't have an osha and do not care about anyone getting sick only that they can turn a profit for the cheapest material possible.

    In other words Nicholson doesn't know and didn't seek any stinky products to test, just gave an uninformed best guess which clearly isn't what we're talking about. Stinky chinese plastic stinks long after the package is opened and often is not any more air-tight than the stinkless products, nor higher quality with more protection. On the contrary, especially the faux-rubber chinese junk, tends to disintegrate with a single-digit # of years.

    The more likely answer (and I'm NOT a plastics chemical engineer) is they use a cheaper, less stable compound which is already breaking down rapidly. They might even see this as a perfect solution, another effort to make something that lasts just until the warranty expires, if there was one realistically pursuable in the first place.

    I see. Thats why LEGO comes in bags with holes?

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