Do You Smell Old?
How to anti-age your body odor.
Turns out, that “old-person smell” goes beyond just a home filled with cats, mothballs and dust on plastic sofa covers; it’s a result of the biology of aging cells. You may not have heard of nonenal (the scientific term describing that unpleasant odor), but you’ve likely already experienced its phenomenon when visiting elderly parents or neighbors.
We’re all familiar with B.O. It comes from sweat secreted by the apocrine and eccrine glands (in areas like the armpits, groin and feet) to cool the body down. Bacteria thrive in these damp places and produce traditional body odor. Nonenal is created when skin’s natural surface oils react with air. As we grow older, the cell processes that prevent oxidation weaken, and more of those oils oxidize in areas like behind the ears and neck. The ensuing greasy odor is what we’ve come to culturally recognize as old-person smell.
“Similar to other animals, humans can extract signals from body odors that allow us to identify biological age,” explains Johan Lundström, PhD, a sensory neuroscientist who has led a study on nonenal at The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. In the experiment, a group of 41 evaluators (age 20 to 30 years old) smelled swatches of body odor and were able to both consistently and instantly pinpoint older donor samples. Evolutionary experts say it’s a skill that helps us identify suitable reproductive mates.
Many women start to experience the change in body odor after about the age of 40, when signs of menopause start. The notorious hot flashes and night sweats that characterize this life stage can cause bursts of perspiration that result in more nonenal. The Monell study also revealed that middle-aged men harbor the most pungent form of the odor, which researchers say could be related to higher testosterone levels.
While we’re just beginning to hear nonenal discussed in the west, it’s not news in the east. “The Japanese have an open and healthy attitude towards aging odor, which they refer to as kareisyu,” says Koko Hayashi, founder of skin care brand Mirai Clinical. The Sapporo, Japan-based company claims to dissolve nonenal with naturally antiseptic persimmon extract (a tannin) and antioxidant green tea, in products ranging from deodorizing soap to purifying body washes, serums and spritzers. According to Hayashi, the Japanese have long used persimmon for its deodorant properties.
“I don’t know if using persimmon products will make a difference over other deodorizers, but I don’t object to giving it a try,” says New York dermatologist, Doris Day, MD, who adds that other changes in maturing skin may also contribute to the smell of seniority. “As we age, cells may not shed the way they should, and the thicker skin can give off a smell of keratin,” she says, of the sulfurous odor many of us have encountered at its worst while accidentally burning hair with a blowdryer.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to combat elderly odor. Day recommends wearing cotton clothing, bathing often, exfoliating skin regularly, and using rich moisturizers to retain more water in cells. Nonenal may stick to shirt collars and pillowcases, so keep clothes and linens fresh. Smelling like an old person doesn’t have to be your fate, even if you have an affinity for chintz and crystal candy dishes.