The Truth about "Old People Smell"

163 Comments

Many people are familiar with it: the grassy or greasy odor that permeates elder care facilities, grandparents' homes and other similar places. Commonly referred to as "old people smell," this odor is called "nonenal," and it is widely misunderstood in the United States.

According to a study published by the "Journal of Investigative Dermatology," an increase of nonenal is associated with aging. Found only in participants aged 40 and older, nonenal is a component of body odor that is produced when omega-7 unsaturated fatty acids on the skin are degraded through oxidation.

Despite these findings, many people think that Nonenal is the result of poor bathing habits. Others believe that the smell, which is difficult to detect on oneself but lingers on pillowcases, shirt collars and other such fabrics, is completely impossible to combat. However, neither of these assumptions has any basis in fact; it is time to illuminate the truth about Nonenal.

What causes old people smell?

Nonenal production is a natural by-product of the aging process. Caused by the deterioration of the skin's antioxidant defenses, nonenal production usually begins around age 40 in both men and women, and may be exacerbated by hormonal changes such as menopause.

As the skin grows weaker, its natural oils become oxidized more quickly. Fatty acids, which are secreted by the sebaceous glands, react to the oxygen in the air to form nonenal. Because it isn't water soluble, nonenal can remain on the skin despite washing, even remaining after intense scrubbing. Therefore, the smell persists, even in extremely clean environments.

How do you get rid of old people smell?

Reducing nonenal odor can be accomplished by following a healthy lifestyle: exercising regularly, avoiding stress, abstaining from smoking, drinking alcohol only in moderation, eating a clean diet, drinking plenty of water and getting enough rest.

Certain ingredients can also help combat nonenal, such as persimmon extract and Japanese green tea. Conventional soaps in the U.S. use deodorants to eliminate 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, due to lack of understanding about aging odor in the United States, brands have yet to incorporate ingredients to address this issue.

The truth about "old people smell" is: it's a natural part of the aging process, and no one experiencing it should feel ashamed.

Instead, we should continue to promote dialogue about it, and ensure that anyone dealing with nonenal is equipped with the information they need to adopt healthy habits and care for their skin effectively.


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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163 Comments

I find this article disturbingly harmful by the way it obscures the many real issues around personal hygiene care that arise. 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, while articles like this one 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.
Cap'n, the smell of 90 weight and a little gasoline ( the real stuff without corn alcohol), a dab of transmission fluid and a hint fresh lacquer paint is TOTALLY intoxicating...