Many people are familiar with it: the musty, grassy or greasy odor that lingers in senior living facilities, grandparents’ homes and other similar places. Some people refer to it as “old person smell,” and it is widely misunderstood in the United States.
This scent is often mistakenly attributed to poor hygiene, but it is actually an inescapable component of body odor that only manifests in older individuals. The official (and more respectful) term for “old people smell” is nonenal.
What Causes Older Individuals to Smell Differently?
According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, an increase of 2-nonenal is directly associated with aging. 2-nonenal is a chemical compound that is produced when omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids on the skin are degraded through oxidation. Around age 40 in both men and women, the skin begins producing more fatty acids as its natural antioxidant defenses begin to deteriorate. Hormonal changes like menopause can contribute to this chemical process as well.
As the skin grows weaker, its natural oils oxidize more quickly, producing 2-nonenal. Because it isn’t water soluble, 2-nonenal can remain on the skin despite thorough washing. Therefore, the smell persists on the body and on fabrics, even in extremely clean environments.
Can You Get Rid of Nonenal Smell?
Just like traditional body odor, following a healthy lifestyle can help to minimize 2-nonenal. This includes exercising regularly, avoiding stress, abstaining from smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, eating a clean diet, drinking plenty of water and getting enough rest.
When it comes to personal care products, conventional soaps in the United States contain many different deodorants, enzymes and other chemicals to eliminate unpleasant odors caused by naturally occurring compounds like ammonia (found in urine), trimethylamine and hydrogen sulfide (found in feces and urine), propionic acid (found in sweat), and isovaleric acid (a smelly component of foot odor). However, these ingredients are not effective at eliminating or neutralizing 2-nonenal.
One Japanese skincare brand claims to have found a botanical combination that does the trick: persimmon and green tea. The tannins in persimmon extract help to break down and wash away 2-nonenal, and the antioxidants in Japanese green tea are believed to detoxify the skin and extend deodorizing effects. The company offers this combination in many different forms, such as bar soap, body wash and even fabric spray.
Elderly Bathing and Personal Hygiene
Ensuring a senior practices good personal hygiene and household cleaning habits (with or without specialized products) may not be 100 percent effective against nonenal, but it will help minimize other bothersome odors and prevent health problems. Even regularly opening the windows in a loved one’s home can flush out stale air and bring in fresh. Unfortunately, though, older individuals tend to find these tasks increasingly difficult as they get older. In-home care can be a valuable addition for older adults who are struggling with bathing, dressing and cleaning regularly and effectively.
The truth about “old person smell” is that it’s a natural part of the aging process and no one experiencing it should feel ashamed. While some may find the scent unpleasant, many others connect it with fond memories of their grandparents and parents. We should continue to promote open discussions about age-related changes like nonenal to minimize the stigma surrounding aging and ensure the public is equipped with the information they need to adopt healthy habits and seek out proper care.
Sources: 2-Nonenal Newly Found in Human Body Odor Tends to Increase with Aging (https://doi.org/10.1046/j.0022-202x.2001.01287.x); Dr. Charlene Brannon, Product Development Manager for Mirai Clinical (https://www.miraiclinical.com/nonenal-faq/); The Chemistry of the Smell of Toilets & Human Waste (https://www.compoundchem.com/2015/06/02/toilets/); Body Odor (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_odor)