We’re all familiar with that fishy odor that comes from catching and handling fish. Whether you’re catch-and-release fishing or filling up a cooler with tonight’s dinner, that fishy smell will inevitably coat your hands – and can be a pain to eliminate.
While you might consider this a point of pride – after all, the stinkier your hands, the more fish you’ve caught – your significant other may not share your enthusiasm for your newly acquired fishy odor!
Avoiding getting fishy odor on your hands can be tough. Nearly everything you do while fishing – from cutting up baitfish to extracting fish hooks – will result in that smell coating your hands. Unlike other strong odors, washing your hands repeatedly with regular soap and water often won’t do the trick.
So how do you remove the fish smell from your hands? I’ll break down some of the best methods you can use at home to get rid of fishy odor in a hurry.
Why do fish make your hands smell?
As you may know, all fish have an exterior protective coating known as a “slime coat”. This slime coat works similarly to human skin. It provides an external layer of protection from parasites, bacteria, and other diseases and injuries. If you’ve ever handled catfish, you’ll know how prominent their slime coats are.
Unfortunately for us, this slime coat also comes with an odor that permeates your skin and stays there. This is particularly true when it comes to handling dead baitfish. Dead fish contain a chemical called trimethylamine oxide, which breaks down into ammonia derivatives as it decomposes. Trimethylamine oxide is most prevalent in surface-dwelling cold-water fish like cod, so these fish tend to start smelling bad the fastest.
How to get rid of fish smell on hands?
Now that you know a little bit about what causes the fishy smell to adhere to your hands, let’s take a look at some of the most effective methods of removing the smell.
1) Stainless Steel
Stainless steel might not be the first thing you think of when it comes to foul odor removal, but it’s actually a highly effective method. As mentioned previously, the cause of the foul odor in fish is the trimethylamine oxide breaking down into ammonia compounds. Stainless steel binds to these ammonia molecules – neutralizing them and removing the fishy smell. This binding ability is also what causes stainless steel to resist corrosion.
To remove the smell, simply rub both hands for several seconds on a stainless steel sink, knife, or appliance. Then wash your hands with soap and water as you normally would.
If you’re out fishing and you don’t have a stainless steel sink nearby, the Amco Rub-A-Way Bar is an excellent portable solution used by fishermen all over the world. It will work either with or without water, and is also effective for garlic, onions, and even body odor!
2) Lemon Juice or Vinegar
Lemon juice and vinegar are both acids that work by neutralizing strong-smelling fishy odors. They react with the amines left on your hands, and in the case of vinegar, replace them with a different powerful scent. If you have both on hand, you can create a 50/50 mixture of the two, which is less harsh than pure vinegar.
To remove fishy smells with lemon juice or vinegar: simply scrub your hands thoroughly in the liquid and then wash them off with regular soap and water. Keep in mind that this can be a little harsh on sensitive skin, and if you have any cuts on your hands it will burn like hell for a few seconds.
Both fresh lemons and bottled lemon juice will work equally well for the job and also work well for removing fish smell from cutting boards and kitchen knives.
3) Baking Soda
Baking soda is well known for its odor-neutralizing abilities and works equally well for fishy smells. To use baking soda, simply mix 2 tablespoons of baking soda with 1 tablespoon of water. This will create a thick paste that you rub all over your hands and scrub thoroughly. Once you’ve scrubbed off any residual fishy particles, wash your hands with regular soap and water.
Toothpaste might be a surprising choice to many people, but it’s actually highly effective at getting rid of fishy odor on your hands. Toothpaste is designed to neutralize bacteria in your mouth, so the same mechanism allows it to work on your skin.
Regular white fluoride toothpaste will work better than the gel type, and if you have baking soda toothpaste, that will work even better. To use the toothpaste, simply apply a pea-sized drop on your palms and rub them together for several minutes until your hands are thoroughly coated. Then rinse your hands well in warm water, and enjoy the minty fresh aroma!
5) Coffee Grounds, Ketchup, Tomato Sauce
These common food items can all work in a pinch, plus you probably have at least one of them in your kitchen. Unlike stainless steel, lemon juice, or vinegar, these items don’t chemically react with the ammonia compounds that cause fishy odor, instead, they simply mask the smell with a more powerful scent of their own.
To use coffee grounds, simply rub them over your hands for a minute or two, and then rinse your hands with soap and water. This will leave your hands smelling like freshly brewed coffee, which is a whole lot better than rotting fish!
To use ketchup or tomato sauce, rub a generous amount all over your hands, and leave it there for several minutes. Then rinse everything off and – voila – no more fishy smell!
6) Abrasive Cleaners
Abrasive cleaners work by scrubbing off the top layer of skin that’s absorbed the fishy smell. These cleaners work similarly to an exfoliant for your face, harmlessly shedding skin cells, and leaving you with fresh smelling hands.
There are a large number of products you can use as abrasive cleaners for this purpose.
Some of the best-performing ones are:
- Pumice Stones
- Soap Stones
- Liquid Pumice Hand Cleaners (GOJO, Lava Liquid, Fast Orange, etc.)
- Solid Pumice Soap Bars
These abrasive cleaners work extremely well for removing even the harshest fish odors from your hands. The mechanical nature of these products ensures there’s no way any fish odor will remain on your skin after a thorough scrubbing.
If you don’t already have one of these products handy, check out GOJO natural orange pumice hand cleaner. It’s an industrial-strength hand cleaner and was designed to be used by mechanics for removing grease, tar, oil, and other tough to remove stains on your hands.
Hopefully, you know have a better idea of how to remove the fish smell from your hands after a day on the water fishing.
Whether you’re cutting bait for trophy pike, or you’re catching a few lake trout for dinner, you’re inevitably going to end up with that distinctive odor on your hands and fingers. While wearing a good pair of fishing gloves can work in some circumstances, using one of the above methods will ensure you’re never persona non grata at the next family BBQ!
I’ve loved being in the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I grew up fishing, canoeing, and camping throughout the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It’s what lead me to start this site and share my passions for fishing, diving, kayaking and more. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or (preferably!) preparing for my next outdoor adventure.