What is Old Person Smell?

May 3, 2017

What is Old Person Smell?

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Many people can agree that older adults have a distinct smell, but they fail to recognize what actually causes the odor. It’s common to make the assumption that “old person smell” is due to senior hygiene denial, poor habits, or a lack of care. Other people think it’s a certain type of perfume that, for some reason, all older adults just LOVE. While any of these practices can lead to an undesired smell or worsen the distinct scent, they aren’t the main sources of old person smell.

What Causes Old Person Smell?

As people age, there is an increase of a chemical compound called nonenal in the body. In one study, researchers analyzed the body odor of participants between the ages of 26 and 75. Of these participants, nonenal was found only in subjects that were 40 years or older. Researchers also discovered that the degradation through oxidization of omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids on the skin is what produces this compound.

In other words, when the skin’s natural surface oils react with air, nonenal is produced. The process typically begins around age 40, and occurs in both men and women. As adults are maturing past this age, the skin ages, causing its natural antioxidant protection to decrease. This ultimately results in greater oxidation of fatty acids. As women mature and reach the stage of menopause, hormonal imbalances and changes can also effect the production of nonenal.

How is old person smell different from regular body odor?

Nonenal has a grassy, greasy odor, and is much different than typical BO. Unlike normal body odor, old person smell is difficult to detect on oneself. It can also transfer and remain on fabrics such as shirt collars, pillowcases, and other clothing/furniture pieces.

Sweat glands are a common cause for regular body odor. As sweat is released from the glands, it provides the perfect environment for bacterial growth. Ultimately, the bacterial breakdown of sweat compounds produces the traditional body odor.

As a combination of water and other organic substances, sweat is very different from nonenal. Typical body odor caused by sweat can be easily treated with soap and water, but getting rid of old person smell isn’t that easy. Since lipid acids are oil based and not water soluble, the smell can’t just be scrubbed away.

Why does old person smell exist?

Aside from the simple answer that nonenal production is just a part of aging, researchers have suggested that it is an evolutionary process. Johan Lundström, Ph.D., a sensory neuroscientist, led a study at The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia on nonenal. He explains that the capability of humans to detect old person smell in older adults might be similar to the way animals use scent to differentiate young, healthy mates from those that are older or sick. While humans might not have the same approach to the smell as animals, it’s possible that there are other instinctual reasons for the odor in addition to bodily processes.

Is there a way to get rid of old person smell?

There isn’t an exact cure for old person smell or a short-term fix. Unlike regular body odor, a shower and a good scrub aren’t going to do the trick. It also can’t be easily washed out of clothing or other fabric due to its oil properties. So, it’s likely that the scent will linger even in the cleanest environments.

With that being said, there are ways to reduce nonenal odor. By leading a healthy lifestyle, the body may be able to retain greater antioxidant protection. Exercising regularly, eating healthy, and staying hydrated are a few habits that can possibly control nonenal production. Stress can also increase nonenal production and intensify old person smell,  so decreasing stress and getting enough sleep could also help.

The United States still has a large misunderstanding of old person smell and nonenal. In contrast, Japan is a country in which citizens greatly respect the elderly and refer to the geriatric fragrance as “Kareishu” instead of “old person smell.” Two cosmetic companies in Japan have recently added products to their line that specifically target nonenal odor. Shiseido Group constructed a perfume that is formulated to neutralize the smell, and Mirai Clinical has released a line of anti-age-stench soaps. As old person smell becomes more understood and accepted in the United States, American companies might start producing products with similar capabilities.

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