Skip

What's that smell?
January 18, 2007 6:37 PM   Subscribe

What causes "old lady smell"?

Some older women have it. Some don't. Last night I sat next to an 80-year-old woman who had it bad, but my 76-year-old mother-in-law doesn't have it, and neither does my elderly grandmother. So what causes it?

PS Some men probably have it too, but I've never smelled it coming from a man.
posted by acridrabbit to Health & Fitness (42 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's old man smell, trust me.
posted by jayder at 6:38 PM on January 18, 2007


urine, talcum powder, bad breath, unwashed clothing ?
(my grandmother preferred to "air" her clothes than apply soap and water to them).
posted by b33j at 6:40 PM on January 18, 2007


incontinence
posted by amyms at 6:47 PM on January 18, 2007


Sometimes it's a rancid perfume. Old women seem to love Chanel No. 5 and a couple of others, like Replique and Emeraude. But when those over the top heady flowery perfumes go bad, the old peep olafactory senses aren't working as well as they used to, and they keep applying the stuff. I've noticed that with both of my grandmothers. One had a bottle of something or other that was at least 40 years old, and she was still using it! It was just horrible.

I also have found that poor dental hygiene accounts for some Eau d' Old People I've experienced. Like, original teeth that aren't being well-maintained or are slowly decaying can give off a subtle but foul odor. Like, a rotting smell. It's not very pleasant.
posted by iconomy at 6:48 PM on January 18, 2007


Mothballs -- or rather, wearing clothes that have been kept in closets with mothballs.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:57 PM on January 18, 2007


My wife encountered "old person smell" coming from a reasonably young person who was using arthritis medication.

Man, I'm getting an icky feeling in my stomach just thinking about it.
posted by puritycontrol at 7:05 PM on January 18, 2007


Okay, here's a different spin on this: why does an older unwashed person (if that's really the cause) smell different from an unwashed middle-aged or young person?

Note: I'm not talking about bad perfumes, and I don't think this is attributable to any other recognizable odor, such as mothballs or talcum powder - I know what those things smell like, and this ain't it. I really think there's something else going on here.
posted by acridrabbit at 7:13 PM on January 18, 2007


I really think there's something else going on here.

Like the way newborn babies have that smell that makes you feel all fuzzy-headed and protective? Do the elderly give off pheromones that say "take me out in the woods and abandon me"?
posted by felix betachat at 7:17 PM on January 18, 2007 [17 favorites]


I'd be interested in seeing if anyone could identify this "something else" in a double-blind study. My own suspicion is that you couldn't. When a baby smells like talcum or urine, it's cute, and when an old person smells like talcum or urine, it's depressing. The difference isn't in the smell at all — it's in our emotional reaction to the smell, which varies depending on the context we find it in.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:22 PM on January 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


incontinence

Sometimes cat urine also plays a role.
posted by peeedro at 7:30 PM on January 18, 2007


Ooh, I think puritycontrol has part of it - an acquaintance of mine is one of those people on 800 meds at a time and she totally has old-people funk.

It's not quite mothballs, since that's got more an eyepiercing quality, but maybe there's an underlying note d'naptha.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:31 PM on January 18, 2007


The difference isn't in the smell at all — it's in our emotional reaction to the smell, which varies depending on the context we find it in.

Nope. It ain't talcum and it ain't urine. More like slightly sour milk and puppy. It's powerful stuff. I've seen a mother get on a subway with a newborn in a stroller and watched the entire train transfix on the baby. With each bump, literally every head turned to the stroller to see if the baby was okay. The smell of that kid literally filled the train.

When I stepped off the train into the cool freshair, I realized that babies were mind-control parasites. Adorable, cuddly, kootchie wootchie, sweet-smelling parasites.
posted by felix betachat at 7:34 PM on January 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'd be interested in seeing if anyone could identify this "something else" in a double-blind study. My own suspicion is that you couldn't. When a baby smells like talcum or urine, it's cute, and when an old person smells like talcum or urine, it's depressing. The difference isn't in the smell at all — it's in our emotional reaction to the smell, which varies depending on the context we find it in.

I spoke with a friend who's a chemist, and she maintains that while on the surface this may be true, in reality the chemical composition of urine is quite different in an infant than in an elderly person. Not just due to one's diet or medication - which would make a big difference in theirselves - but primarily in the body's production of all sorts of hormones and other smell-producing substances. I asked her if, devoid of context, one could distinguish by scent between an old person's urine and a baby's. Oh, in a second, she replied.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:38 PM on January 18, 2007


Oh, and don't worry, your mother in law and grandmother have it too. And your dog has dog smell. You're just used to them.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:38 PM on January 18, 2007


nebulawindphone:

I'm no expert on old person smell, since I'm never around any, but there is some kind of "asian BO" that I would have (and in effect, have had) no troubles getting a perfect score on a double blind that is testing for false positives. (As has been noted with oldperson smell, absence doesn't mean anything, but presence is surefire).
The test has been running for decades now. It includes people I can't see (around a aisle corner), people when I didn't even realise anyone else was even around, etc etc. No false positives yet, and no room for confirmation bias.
Given this, I'm not surprised by the idea that different kinds of bodies can produce distinctive smells.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:41 PM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is a great question. I was going to go with the moth balls, urine and talcum powder, but I'm willing to listen to other explanations.

On a related note, why do people in line at Six Flags seem to have the worst stale B.O.?
posted by Frank Grimes at 8:11 PM on January 18, 2007


I agree that medications and vitamins are part of it. Ever smell the inside of a GNC? I knew a middle-aged lady who took loads of vitamins and the smell had permeated every particle in her house. She gave me a book once. Years later, I could crack open that book and smell that GNC stench.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:32 PM on January 18, 2007


my google turned this up:

Japan had an exceptionally hot summer in 1999. Inside the packed trains and buses, many people surely winced at the body odor of their fellow passengers. Every person has body odor, to a greater or lesser degree, but what actually causes it? A researcher at Shiseido Laboratories has traced the problem to a fatty acid known as palmitoleic acid. He has also learned that the body of a person up to about the age of 30 does not secrete a noticeable amount of this substance, but that once a person--whether male or female--hits 40, the volume rises sharply. The volume of palmitoleic acid released by the human body is 10 times as great among people in their seventies as in their forties.
posted by JujuB at 8:36 PM on January 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


>When a baby smells like talcum or urine, it's cute, and when an old person smells like talcum or urine, it's depressing.

Well the talc smell would be roughly the same, but are you really positing that all human urine smells the same, whether the person is one week old or a hundred years? That's not logical in the least.

Babies have different diets to adults for a start, and different hormones.

I'm pretty qualified to speak on this subject, having had a great deal of experience with baby excretions in the last year. Baby urine smells not-unpleasant in my experience, more like straw than anything else.

Oh, and, nobody's come up with the obvious answer yet ...

'What causes "old lady smell"?'
'Depends.'
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:00 PM on January 18, 2007


Vick's VapoRub.
posted by bad grammar at 9:22 PM on January 18, 2007


There's a skin-dryness lotion called Sarna that is the epitome of old-lady smell. I swear, it's uncanny. They must all use it.
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:06 PM on January 18, 2007


Having spent a lot of time around relatives who were 60+ and/or dying, I can tell you that the odours I smelled were either
1) dentures: the same odour you smell when you floss a rotting/ needs dental attention tooth.
2) incontinence: Everyone arrives at this point at sometime.
3)Older people often have a harder time taking a shower or bath and might only do so every 1-2 weeks when they have help. Stale body odour/sweat .
4) Unfortunately, women's vaginal odours can be very strong when there is a bacterial overgrowth such as in the case of bacterial vaginosis. Antibiotics are the only cure.

Personally, I think that the denture/tooth odour is usuually the worst.
posted by Ariadne at 10:23 PM on January 18, 2007


i think a lot of them have saggy skin that doesn't dry very well after the shower.. or they aren't as fastidious as they think.. in the skin creases. and what you're smelling is a fungal infection. old dames get it under the breasts.

it's perfectly charming... and very common.

taff
who knows such things for reasons best avoided thinking about...
posted by taff at 11:05 PM on January 18, 2007


The older you get, the worse your senses work. So I'm tipping that "old person smell" is everything the old person concerned can't smell any more.

As an ex taxi driver, I have vivid memories of one particular old dear's smell. Had to wipe down the front seat with powerful cleaner and drive around with the windows open for a full hour to make the interior of the cab fit for human habitation again. Old cigarette smoke, old piss, long-unwashed skin, long-unwashed laundry, all Turned Up To Eleven. But she was charming, even though my eyes were literally watering by the time I dropped her off.
posted by flabdablet at 12:42 AM on January 19, 2007


I also heard the story JujuB tells, some Japanese shirt manufacturer came up with a formal shirt impregnated with chemicals that could neutralise the odour from the secreted chemcial I also recall.
posted by biffa at 12:49 AM on January 19, 2007


Perfumes. Our stanards of what smells good has changes vastly in a hundred years, and the perfumes of our grandparents were very floral and sweet, lacking most of the muskiness of today's perfumes. So, the perfumes they think of as normal and good are unlike what we think of as normal and good.
posted by cmiller at 5:36 AM on January 19, 2007


I'm surprised nobody's brought up the possibility of Ben-Gay yet.
posted by neckro23 at 5:51 AM on January 19, 2007


Tangent: one sometimes component of old-man-smell can be Grecian Formula. Nasty smelling stuff.
posted by gimonca at 6:01 AM on January 19, 2007


My grandmother used to cook cabbage, broccoli etc. just about every day, and it was pretty heavily cooked as well, to make it easier to digest I suppose. That cabbage smell pretty much got into everything.
posted by teleskiving at 6:35 AM on January 19, 2007


My grandfather is a big fan of Brylcreem to get the ol' comb-over just right. I'm thinking this and other hair "tonics" are a contributor to this phenomenon.

Ugh. I feel all queasy. I wonder if, forty years from now, "old people smell" is going to be the term people apply to Herbal Essences.
posted by freudenschade at 7:10 AM on January 19, 2007


It's the meds/vitamins combo along with funky dietary restrictions and digestion issues. It exudes from the skin and the breath. Add in less diligent personal hygiene due to forgetfulness, and there it is. And yes, old guys are prone to it too.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:25 AM on January 19, 2007


My grandfather is a big fan of Brylcreem to get the ol' comb-over just right. I'm thinking this and other hair "tonics" are a contributor to this phenomenon.

I don't think that's it, the same kind of stuff is popular among the rockabilly crowd and those guys don't smell like old men.
posted by Kellydamnit at 7:44 AM on January 19, 2007


My grandmother always smells faintly like dollar bills. It's not unpleasant.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2007


My grandfather's house smelled like this. I always assumed it was the smell of crushed dreams and surrender.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:40 AM on January 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


I remember being a kid and thinking about how my (obsessively clean) mom had a particular oily smell & wondering why. As a kid I thought it was probably just "old woman smell" (although I'm now the age she was then & I'm not old. I'M NOT! I'M NOT!). I got really worried that I would smell that way some day too... it's not a horrible smell, but it's just strong. I thought it was my destiny to end up smelling like my mother.

Anyhow, she still smells that way and I realized in time that it's just her chemistry -- I've met nobody else with the same scent. I mean, I always smell like pretty gardenia flowers and freshly-baked pumpkin pie... so there.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:17 PM on January 19, 2007


I was meaning to post this question a while ago! That kind of sharp ammonia smell? I've come to decide it is just really stale body odour, and a lack of washing any clothes - because I think the bottom line is that these people haven't actually pissed themselves, they just tend to be unconcerned with being boxfresh.
posted by 6am at 12:39 PM on January 19, 2007


This is a great question!

For one, I have heard people say that ill health can be smelled on someone. For example, I have heard of people "knowing" that a family member has cancer because they could "smell it on them." So I guess what I'm saying is that smell can be a very strong indicator of health.

Along the same lines, researchers have found that the most attractive (fertile) people smell the best.

Diet also plays a role.
posted by mintchip at 8:13 PM on January 19, 2007


Bengay?
posted by chalupa at 2:58 PM on January 20, 2007


Cancer does have a unique smell.
On old men, I think it's mostly the fact that their wife died and they don't know how to do laundry. Not sure about old ladies.
Older folks tend to have really dry skin and can't take a whole bath as often as they used to, so maybe it's just that.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:50 PM on January 20, 2007


i know the old person smell of which you speak. (side note, i can also identify the genders and races of about 80% of the people who sit near me on the subway based on their smell (i'll be reading, head down, and suddenly think "ooh, asian man", and i'll be right- one's sitting behind me.))

a close friend with chronic depression also had chronic bad breath - like really terrible poo breath - whenever he was in a bad place mentally, his breath just REEKED. i could always tell when things were going badly for him. so i think hormones play a big part- in his case, stress hormones.

i imagine old people have lots of hormones, and also lack some hormones we young folk have. they're supposed to smell gross because you're not supposed to sleep with them.
posted by twistofrhyme at 7:21 PM on January 20, 2007


Bleurgh, this thread has given me flashbacks to when I was 14 and delivering papers for the local newsagents. My round finished up in two tower blocks that were inhabited entirely with elderly people. There was one floor that smelled overwhelmingly of pot pourri, and another that reeked of that old people smell. No windows, no ventilation, I had to push the papers through the doors with one hand covering my mouth and nose. I hope to god I never smell like that when I'm old, or have to live near people who do.
posted by saturnine at 9:49 AM on January 21, 2007


If my guess about the underlying reason for it is right, you won't mind if you do :-)
posted by flabdablet at 4:37 PM on January 21, 2007


« Older We're all reading poems for Po...   |  What could be causing anxiety-... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post