What Does Insulin Smell LIke?



As a diabetic, you probably wonder about the insulin you use on a daily basis. Some thoughts that cross your mind are: What is insulin made of; how is insulin made; how much does it cost per vial; what does it smell like? For some people, the latter is an unchartered subject.

pen needles

But it draws one to question: have you ever smelled your insulin?

If you have ever had the misfortune of dropping an insulin vial, you may have smelled insulin up close and personal. Some say that insulin’s smell is so special that they can pinpoint the smell from years ago before knowing where it came from. A college student reminisced about how her professor had a distinct smell that she could not pinpoint. Years later, the student was diagnosed with diabetes and placed on an insulin pump. She then realized that her professor must have had an insulin pump! That smell!

According to a now-deleted article by Larissa Zimberoff from asweetlife.org, insulin smells different to every individual. However, most people described the “smell” of insulin as something medicinal or hospital-like. After surveying people on the smell of insulin, people reported that the smell of insulin as “band-aids,” “fresh electronics right of the box-mixed with band aids,” a “book or poster with fresh printing on it,” “new plastic shower curtain liners,” “ rubbing alcohol,” “minty disinfectants,” “corks,” “leather,” “scotch,” and most interestingly “barbie legs.” As you can see, the smell is specific to the individual. Smells are very nostalgic and personalized. A smell can trigger an emotion, a memory, or an experience.

Overall, people commonly described the smell of insulin as “band-aids” both the cloth kind and new kind.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), insulin has a chemical compound to stabilize, acts as an antiseptic, and disinfectant the liquid. This chemical compound is called phenol. Phenol is both a manufactured chemical and is also found in nature. Phenol is a colorless-to-white and solid when pure. Phenol has a distinct odor that is described as “sweet and tarry.” Ingesting and smelling phenol at high levels can be associated with harmful effects. The amount of phenol placed in insulin vials is not enough to cause harmful effects. Phenol evaporates more slowly than water, can form a solution with water, can catch fire, and can be made into synthetic fibers. Phenol is also added to mouthwash and sore throat lozenges since it kills bacteria and fungi.

Phenol is added to each insulin vial by manufacturers to help stabilize the solution. Phenol also acts as a disinfectant, which is very important since insulin is injected into the human body. Phenol’s other purpose is to preserve the insulin. Since insulin is a protein and is susceptible to degradation by bacteria or free-floating protease enzymes, phenol is added to reduce this risk and increase shelf-life. Some pharmaceutical companies are working on more stable insulin analogs that would no longer need to add phenol.

Pharmaceutical company, Thermalin, is engineering new forms of insulin that would be more stable and act more selectively. Thermalin is currently working on “ultra-rapid” insulin, which would act immediately rather than 15-30 minutes of traditional “fast-acting” insulin analogs. This will allow for more precise control during mealtimes. Thermalin is also working on miniaturizing insulin pumps making them less cumbersome and allow for smaller injections for people who need larger doses. These technologies are also being made into oral forms, which would mean no more injections.

Would that then take away the notorious “insulin” smell? Perhaps, but the technology is not finalized yet. As for now, most pharmaceutical companies use insulin with phenol added, which means that the “smell” of insulin is here to stay.

Try Pip Lancets for yourself. We’re pretty sure you’ll never go back to traditional lancets!