The Truth About “Old-People Smell”

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Many people are familiar with it: the musty, grassy or greasy odor that lingers in elder care facilities, grandparents’ homes and other similar places. Some people refer to it as “old-people 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 the smell is nonenal.

What Causes Older Individuals to Smell Differently?

According to a study published by the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, an increase of nonenal is directly associated with aging. 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 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 nonenal. Because it isn’t water soluble, 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?

Just like traditional body odor, following a healthy lifestyle can help to minimize 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 hygiene products, conventional soaps in the United States use many different deodorants to eliminate unpleasant odors, such as ammonia (found in urine), trimethylamine and sulfide oxygen (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 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 nonenal, and the antioxidants in Japanese green tea are believed to detoxify the skin and extend the deodorizing effects. The company offers this combination in many different forms, such as bar soap, body wash and even fabric spray.

Frequently practicing 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 air. Unfortunately, though, older individuals tend to find these tasks increasingly difficult as they get older. In-home care can be a valuable addition for seniors who are struggling with bathing and cleaning regularly and effectively.

The truth about “old-people 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 discussion 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.


Dr. Charlene Brannon is the Product Development Manager for Mirai Clinical, a company devoted to developing ground-breaking, naturally safe body and skin care products. Dr. Brannon was a tenured professor at the University of Washington for 25 years before joining the Mirai Clinical team.

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157 Comments

Yes, there may be times when some bodies have new odors, but they are minimal in contrast to the new difficulties that arise in personal ability for self care:when people age, and the difficulty caregivers face in keeping up with changes. I guess I'm more upset about this than usual right now, for my brother lives in a nursing home, and a new staff leader does not focus on this issue, and multiple soiled sheets and clothing are thrown into the cloth covered laundry basket that sits in the hall, waiting for time to do the laundry.

When people age, or are put on medications, their visual perception and space relational awareness diminishes, their balance goes, and reactions and movement is slowed so that unzipping and unbuttoning are delayed - all these features diminish accuracy and timeliness in relieving oneself - yet the clear issues are often avoided by interchangeable caregivers, who find it uncomfortable to discuss so they do not bring clarity and accurate help to the process - so soiled clothing and sheets are left in laundry baskets, or sitting in rooms.

Tending to complex living needs for storage takes evolving strategies, including changing clothing during the day sometimes - and sometimes it's too much bother and the person refuses - issues leave gaps in effectiveness.

Not changing underwear or socks at night - all these tasks are harder for elders to manage, and too often, once they are already dressed and looking good, helpers are not planning for the level of care needed to keep the setting clean and fresh. It is a challenge, to learn to be gentle and kind and thoughtful and quiet, yet still talk about needed tasks and keep up with them. Many helpers ask the client, who may be tired and refuse, so the helper writes "non compliant" on their worksheet, and goes home.

As an elder care direct support person, I have worked in private homes with highly organized co-workers, and never found any smells, when the setting is kept to minimal clutter and cleaned often. I feel discouraged often, by the lack of help generated by this tendency of our health services to focus on one dimension, which encourages some, but also forgives the lack of close attention and communication needed.

Truth is, it's uncomfortable for people to focus on personal hygiene of others, and talk directly about the varied, evolving situations that arise. So we muddle through, often ineffectively, and focus on other issues when the bulk of odors is from challenges in working together around hygiene.

I understand the embarrassments, was stifled by many of those myself, but over time, found issues got worse, and so I learned to be direct, simple, timely and understand when elders were embarrassed, and found it worked in ways I had feared it would not, and staying clean and fresh is a good, healthy activity to assist.
There are some answers, the first being fresh air introduced in small amounts. So if you run an exhaust fan in the bathroom, crack a window in the bedroom. Kitchen fan venting, open a window across the room. You might lose a little heat, but the fresh smell is worth it.
Second, cover mom's chair with a pretty throw and wash it weekly. Use a scented dryer sheet.
Third: be vigilant about laundry. No wear it and put it back. If she wore it, wash it. Put the used dryer sheets in her clothes drawers to add fresh scent. Don't let her hand wash stockings and bras. It doesn't kill the odors. Throw them in the washer in a delicate items bag and let them air dry.
im 56 yrs old . if you plan on getting into my personal space in an intimate way just call in advance . ill have them s*its shined up like chrome before you get here .
if not , my default odor will be gasoline and 90 weight gear oil .