Why Do Old People Smell Like That?

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Many of us remember the smell of an old relative as plainly as the look of them. If you’ve ever thought something “smelled like grandpa or grandma,” you may be wondering if old people truly smell different, and if so, what could potentially cause this?

Commonly described as “musty” or “grassy,” the unique smell of older people is often thought of as a stereotype; however, there’s evidence to support the idea that, broadly speaking, older adults have their own unique odor.

FYI: In some cases, certain odors can indicate a lack of general health. To learn how to start improving your health, read our guide: 8 Simple Ways to Improve Your Health.

Different Smells for Different Ages

People often refer to different ages as having different smells, from offhand remarks about “stinky” teenagers to family members sticking their noses in clean babies to get a whiff of “baby smell.”

On that basis, “old person smell” could be just as natural as baby smell. Take this study, called “The Smell of Age,” where participants were asked to try and identify the age bracket of test subjects using only their smell. While “young” and “middle-aged” were difficult for the participants to discern, the “old-age” bracket was correctly guessed far more frequently.

This suggests that humans, like many other mammals, are able to discriminate the ages of people by their body odor, at least to a certain degree, providing evidence that old age smell is more than just an unflattering hoax.

Chemical Changes in the Body

This leads to the question of what could cause this smell in people over a certain age. One theory suggests that the smell comes from a compound called 2-nonenal, which is a natural byproduct of chemicals breaking down in the body as people age.

For example, as omega-7 fatty acids break down in our skin (which is one reason that skin becomes less elastic and moisturized as we age), they give off 2-nonenal, which carries the musty odor associated with aging. This compound has only been observed in people over 40 years old, and its amount increases the older people get.

However, this isn’t the only theory. Others suggest that bacteria could be released by changing skin-gland activity as we age, leading to chemical changes that produce the smell. More research is needed to definitively confirm the source of “old age smell.”

How to Address Old Person Smell

Regardless of how the smell is produced, many seniors are self-conscious about it. In Japan, for example, there’s a whole niche cosmetic industry for masking “old person smell,” or “kareishū” as they call it. It includes perfumes, soaps, and moisturizers marketed specifically to mask or eliminate this odor.

There’s nothing wrong or unnatural about this odor, as far as we know. It doesn’t indicate that the person is in poor health, and it doesn’t harm those around them. The smell also has no correlation to cleanliness, despite some stereotypes that older people need better hygiene.

In fact, to reference the “Smell of Age” study again, participants found the middle-age bracket to have the most intense smell, so the “old person smell” wasn’t even their main take-away from the experience.

Bottom Line

There’s ample research to support the idea that old people develop a distinct smell as they age. However, contrary to popular belief, it’s not a result of poor hygiene, but rather a natural result of aging due to one or more chemical processes that researchers have yet to definitively confirm.

If you’re self-conscious about the smell, there are products out there that can help. But the good news is that, as several studies have confirmed, it’s probably not as bad as you think.

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