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.
2-Nonenal newly found in human body odor tends to increase with aging. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11286617)