What is “Old-People Smell”? The Truth

“Old-people smell” is a very real phenomenon, but it’s one that is severely misunderstood and causes a lot of confusion. On the one hand, this smell does exist, but at the same time “old people” actually smell less than young people.

Old People Smell Less

Think about body odor for a moment—that strong, overpowering, musty smell. It presents in many young people and if an active 21-year old man doesn’t shower for a few days, you can guarantee that everyone downwind of them will know about it. That said, when was the last time you got a whiff of such a strong scent in a senior? When was the last time that your parent or grandparent smelled like your child?

Generally, older people smell less, even when personal hygiene has been accounted for. A study conducted by the Monell Center set out to discover which body odor was more favorable and whether people could identify an age group based on smell alone.

What they found was that older men, specifically those in the 75 to 95 age range, smelled “better” than their younger counterparts, with participants regarding their scent to be the best. However, when the same test was conducted on women, the opposite was true, with participants preferring the scent of younger women. 

Of course, we’re only talking about natural body odor here. The research doesn’t simply suggest that the participants preferred the smell of the older men’s shower gel and were averse to the perfume worn by older women.

As with all quirks of human biology, there could be some evolutionary reasoning behind this. Experts have suggested that the milder scent of elderly men could indicate a mate with a high chance of long-term survival, while the less favorable scent of an elderly woman indicates that she is past childbearing age.

In any case, both elderly men and elderly women have much less pronounced body odors but for some reason, an elderly man’s scent is considered more pleasing than an elderly woman’s scent.

Why is “Old-Person Smell” so Negative?

As with any form of body odor, the person causing the odor is often the only one who doesn’t smell it. This becomes more of a problem as we age, and that smell becomes less and less pronounced. Our ability to detect bad fragrances may also be reduced.

In addition, mobility problems caused by age may impact personal hygiene and general home care. An elderly person may bathe less and spend less time washing their towels and linens, making it seem like the “old-person smell” is filling their home.

But as noted above, if you entered a home owned by young men who bathed infrequently and rarely washed their towels or linen, you’d notice a much stronger smell.

How Does Body Odor Change Over Time?

The body undergoes many changes as we age, and these can impact the way that we smell and the way these smells are perceived by others. Some of these changes are as follows:

  • Fat Oxidation: The skin contains more fatty acids and fewer antioxidants as we age. This increases the concentration of a chemical known as 2-nonenal, which is often associated with “old-person smell.” This chemical is said to smell like stale beer or old cardboard.
  • Hormones: Hormone levels can change over time and the production of hormones may also be impacted by medications. Older people are significantly more likely to take medications, many of which can cause strong body odors and other potentially malodorous issues.
  • Bad Breath: While a young person’s body odor generally smells worse than an older person’s body odor, the same can’t be said for their breath. The older you are, the more likely you are to have suffered from tooth loss, gum disease, and severe decay. Multiple medications, including most opioids, also cause dry mouth, which can make the smell worse.
  • Dehydration: It’s thought that dehydration could impact a person’s body odor, as it increases the concentration of strong-smelling compounds in urine and sweat. Older people often struggle to stay hydrated, as their body becomes less effective at sending thirst signals.

How to Reduce Old-Person Smell

If a person’s home smells “old,” it could be due to their possessions, from their clothes, curtains, and chairs to the ornaments that adorn the walls, fireplace, and tables. In an elderly person’s home, these are more likely to be very old. Over time, they can become impregnated with strong and musty smells, even if the rest of the house is clean and everything gets a good dusting every now and then.

If you are worried about strong and musty smells, think about changing or cleaning fabrics that you’ve had for many years, including cushions, covers, curtains, and throws. You may forget to wash these, and you may think that you washed them recently, only to realize that “recently” was actually several years ago.

Time has a way of slipping by unnoticed and the older you get, the faster it slips!

Regular bathing is key, as well. Make sure you wash everything, including your hair, and use strong-scented shampoos, conditioners, and soaps/shower gels. If you’re struggling to maintain personal hygiene because you’re worried about slipping on the bathroom floor or falling in the shower, consider a walk-in bath or a walk-in shower.

You can also install non-slip mats to cover slippery bathroom surfaces while adding grab bars to raise and lower yourself.

Washing machines and tumble dryers will ensure your clothes always stay fresh and clean, and you can use strong detergents to ensure they smell fresh.

It’s all simple stuff and it’s almost insulting to hear these things mentioned as “tips,” but it’s easy to forget them and as your mobility reduces, you may find yourself taking longer breaks between baths/showers and wash cycles.

Drink lots of water to stay hydrated throughout the day and if you have any pains or discoloration in your mouth, consult your dentist. If your teeth are heavily decayed and discolored, they may determine that the best course of treatment is to remove them and install implants or dentures. 

This may sound like a long and painful process, but when gums have receded and teeth have decayed, they can be removed with relative ease.