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It’s Not Your Old Uncle Who Stinks, It’s You

The ugliest thing about ‘old-people smell’ is our stigma around aging

My grandmother spent her few remaining Chicago winters in an elderly care rehab center far up on the North Side. We both hated it, not just because Fox News blared on every other resident’s TV or because none of the puzzles contained all the pieces, but because there was also a peculiar funk in the air. In particular, whenever I stood in front of the those sliding glass doors, it wouldn’t take long until I was bathed in a greasy stink as a rush of warm air hit my face. 

Sure, some of it was due to a swirl of floor cleaner, floral arrangements, expired perfume and cafeteria food. But — and how do I put this as nicely as possible? — it also seemed like the residents themselves had a distinct odor, too. 

To get me off the hook, allow science to be the asshole here. In short, your skin is covered in natural oils that keep it looking fresh and youthful. When you’re younger, you’re able to oxidize these oils away. But as you grow older and your hormones change, your body starts producing more of a smelly something called “nonenal.” Worse yet, your body’s ability to keep it from hitting the air and becoming a scent weakens. (The paper I link out to describes it as an “unpleasant greasy and grassy odor.”) Diet, exercise and a persimmon soap might help, but generally, even a thorough washing won’t get rid of nonenal. So really, the only thing you can do is sit there and stink. 

That stink, though, turns out to be in the nostrils of the beholder. Or maybe better put, it’s not as irksome as the reputation that precedes it — at least per a 2012 study by researchers at the Monell Chemical Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Elderly people have a discernible underarm odor that younger people consider to be fairly neutral and not very unpleasant,” writes Johan Lundström, the study’s author. This was surprising, Lundström adds, “given the popular conception of old-age odor as disagreeable. However, it’s possible that other sources of body odors, such as skin or breath, may have different qualities.”

Dermatologist Fayne Frey agrees: Blaming nonenal is probably too simplistic. “Concluding that nonenal is the cause of body odor in older individuals is not possible based on this limited data from one study,” she cautions. “There are so many other reasons.” Medication, lifestyle, illness or other “metabolic imbalances” could be causing a shift in body odor as well, she says.

Basically, then, it’s not your old uncle who stinks — it’s our culture’s stigma around aging. So celebrate that natural, beautiful musk of wisdom. It’ll be yours before you know it.