When we hold a newborn baby, we notice that distinct "newborn smell" that activates our "feel good" senses. Of course, that scent does not last forever but did you ever think about why those changes occur? Likewise, our smells or odors seem to change as we age but is it necessarily an unpleasant thing, or is it merely "different"?
Body odor originating from sweat glands is due to sweat production and bacteria on the skin. These water-based secretions can be managed by good hygiene with soap and water.
Body odor called "2-nonenal" is related to the secretion of lipids from sebaceous glands, is not water-soluble, and is not related to poor hygiene but to the aging process.
In younger people, the compound causing the aging odor is removed by the natural production of antioxidants on the skin. As we age, the production of antioxidants is reduced, leaving more aging odor on the skin.
Healthy living improvements to diet, exercise, and water intake can reduce odor caused by sweat or the compound causing aging odor.
Some refer to this smell as "old people's smell." While sounding somewhat "ageist," most associate this odor with older adults or long-term care homes and the smell of bodily functions. There are several sources of body odor. Some are due to outside factors such as medications or food we ingest, and others are related to body chemistry.
Sources of body odor
-Sweat Glands: Apocrine and Eccrine glands secrete "sweat" from water and other organic materials. While eccrine glands produce sweat for cooling the skin, they are found throughout the body and do not produce odor.
-Apocrine glands are in hair follicles found mainly under your arms and in the groin area. The sweat from apocrine glands causes bacterial growth on the skin's surface, producing body odor. Since the materials that make up the body odor are water-based, the smell can be reduced or eliminated with good hygiene practices, including soap and water.
-Sebaceous glands: Sebaceous glands produce Omega-7 fatty acids or lipids that change when exposed to the air. This "oxidization" of lipids produces 2- nonenal (aging odor), an organic compound that is also odor-producing. However, this aging odor differs from regular body odor from sweat glands. In addition, these lipids are not water soluble, so they cannot be easily washed or scrubbed away. As a result, some describe the smell as having a grassy or greasy odor but don’t always describe it as unpleasant.
Before age 40, enough antioxidants are produced on the skin to slow down the oxidization process that makes the "aging odor." However, as we age, antioxidants slow in production. At the same time, the aging body has increased the production of Omega-7 fatty acids. These two aging factors increase the aging odor on the skin. So contrary to belief, this type of odor has little to do with hygiene.
A Japanese study by a cosmetic company in 2001 led to the discovery of 2-nominal. They studied 22 healthy people ranging in age from 26 to 75. Each participant wore a t-shirt for three days, then material samples were analyzed. Individuals over 40 had the "aging odor" on the t-shirt samples, but those under 40 did not.
The scent of aging odor is challenging to remove because it is not water-soluble. Therefore, the Japanese have used persimmon extract and green tea in soaps and bathing products for centuries. The claim is that these additives reduce the smell of aging odor, but there is no solid evidence that it eliminates this scent.
In 2012 another study was conducted at the Monell Center investigating the chemical changes in odor composition occurring as we age. They divided participants into groups of young (20-30), middle age (45-55), and old age (75-95), with 12-16 participants in each group.
Each participant had removable underarm pads to wear at night. Forty-one participants evaluated the material in the pads and rated the intensity and pleasantness of the smell. They identified the samples from the older age group but rated the scent as "less intense and less unpleasant" than the odors from the younger age groups. So, while the smell was identifiable according to the older age group, it wasn't considered as “unpleasant" as the odor from the younger age group.
Other causes of odor
When a person has a "fruity" smell, this can be a sign of hyperglycemia or high blood sugar. This type of odor requires medical intervention as soon as possible.
The scent of ammonia may initially seem to be associated with the smell of urine, but an ammonia odor could indicate a sign of kidney disease. Again, the person with this odor needs to see a healthcare provider for assessment and treatment.
Some medicines will cause an increase in sweating with the potential for increased body odor. Antidepressants such as bupropion, escitalopram, duloxetine, fluoxetine, and venlafaxine all cause an increase in sweating. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as naproxen and opioid analgesics may also cause an increase in sweating.
The old saying, "you are what you eat," also applies regarding the resulting odor from what we eat. For example, food such as garlic is secreted through sweat to cause body odor. Other foods that cause odor include onions, spicy foods, asparagus, and alcohol.
Bladder and bowel incontinence will leave an odor on the skin or fabric if soiled. Many incontinence products have odor-reducing inserts to mask smells. In addition, good hygienic practices, changing soiled garments, and washing bed sheets can reduce unpleasant odors.
Tips to reduce odor
Drink plenty of water daily—6-8 glasses are recommended. Fluids will keep you hydrated and flush your system!
Avoid or reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption.
Eat a balanced diet with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables such as: red kidney beans; black beans; broccoli; tomatoes; spinach; potatoes; blueberries; pecans; strawberries; red grapes
Get plenty of sleep and rest
Reduce stress with exercise, relaxation, and meditation
Bathe or shower regularly - use a moisturizer with antioxidants after washing to hydrate skin
Launder bed sheets and clothing regularly - wear cotton clothing versus synthetic when possible
Air out rooms, especially the bedrooms in your home, periodically by opening the windows
Use a topical antiperspirant on your underarms to reduce sweat
Reduce foods that may increase odor, such as spicy foods, onions, and garlic
You can reduce body odor produced by sweat glands by using hygienic practices and healthy living choices. These odors may increase with aging due to medications and lifestyle, but the odor produced by sebaceous glands called 2-nonenal is directly related to the biological changes associated with aging. Therefore, this aging odor, while not necessarily considered an “unpleasant” odor, may not be eliminated but can be managed with some modifications in lifestyle practices.