Old People Smell - An Introduction to Nonenal
Maybe you’ve had the experience of walking into a hospital or long term care facility and instantly recognizing the smell. It’s a slightly unpleasant grassy or greasy odor and many times it’s referred to as “old people smell.” Well it turns out this smell actually has a scientific explanation, and a scientific name.
Nonenal was first identified by a 7 person team of scientists from Shiseido, a Japanese based cosmetics company. Their findings were first published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2001 and identified “2-Nonenal” as the primary source for this odor*. Nonenal is produced when certain type of acid produced by the human body is oxidized, or exposed to oxygen. This is usually the result of a hormonal imbalance and a decrease in antioxidant protection by the skin - both side effects of aging. Nonenal production usually starts around the age of 40 and can be exasperated by menopause or other fluctuations in hormones.
The frustrating thing about Nonenal is that the smell isn’t easily removed, especially from fabrics like shirt collars, sheets, and towels. When Nonenal is produced and oxidized, it is transformed into an organic compound. This compound is not water soluble which means that as much as you scrub, the Nonenal isn’t removed from the skin or fabrics. Even in the cleanest of environments, nonenal can persist.
Fortunately, now that scientists understand what creates this odor, work can be done to find a solution. New research is being done to identify ways to treat and remove Nonenal, including creating specially formulated shampoos, conditioners, and skin treatments that remove Nonenal from the skin and hair.
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