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There’s a belief that old people smell. Described as an unpleasant, greasy, and grassy odor, this description can be used to demean older populations. This stigma combined with stereotypes of lower intelligence, heightened clumsiness, and reduced aesthetic beauty often produces the fear of aging and death. 

I remember when my mother, younger and optimistic about life, said, “Old people smell like their age — why do you think Grandma wears so much perfume?” She didn’t continue the conversation, and I thought nothing of it. The context itself is blurry, but I faintly recall thinking how I hated her perfume clogging my nostrils whenever we hugged. I desired an embrace without the sickeningly sweet scent spoiling the rare affirmations of affection. 

But now, as my mother has passed the threshold of being halfway to 100, those kinds of remarks have increased in frequency, except she applies them towards herself. I don’t see it. To me, she looks nothing like 50 and carries the scent of the outside world with her whenever she enters the house after a gardening session. It’s not pleasant, but she smells like a normal person. As such, I can’t pinpoint any reason for her insecurities, and it has made me wonder about the association between age and scent. 

However, I know she is not alone in her concerns, as there are many products advertised to get rid of or “purify” the “old people smell,” such as persimmon soaps. When I looked up the purpose of persimmon soap, its function was made clear with the following words: “Persimmon extract has been found to effectively eliminate the odors that occur with aging skin. Persimmon eliminates all kinds of body odors including nonenal.” (AgingCare, on Mirai Clinical Persimmon Soap). After reading this, I was curious about the odor-eliminating properties of persimmon but more importantly, the keyword that stood out to me was nonenal. 

Nonenal, or 2-nonenal, is an unsaturated aldehyde. An aldehyde refers to a compound that has a carbon atom share a double bond with an oxygen atom, while sharing a single bond with a hydrogen atom and any other atom. In terms of scent, they are known for being either sweet or pungent, and are involved in producing the scents associated with stale beer and buckwheat. For humans, nonenal is associated with the “old person smell,” and is produced by chemicals in the skin breaking down over time due to oxidation.

But these processes are universal, and above all, natural. I understand that these reasons alone may not be enough to alleviate the stigma, but I hope that the knowledge helps ease fears that spring from the unknown, such as not knowing why or how the human body smells different throughout different stages in life. 

If I think back on my own childhood and listen to various accounts of my friends and family, it appears that as children, most of us enjoyed being embraced by our grandparents. In fact, most of us recognized that every family member smelled different, but not in a bad way. There was a distinct smell of “grandma” and “grandpa,” but it wasn’t disgusting or revolting. Rather than incurring feelings of repulsion, many of us simply understood different people had different scents. Perhaps Grandma baked cookies in her spare time and loved to garden, smelling like cookie dough and lavender with each hug. Maybe Grandpa enjoyed smoking out on the porch on clear afternoons while tending the fire, making his hugs smell like smokey firewood and his cigar. The imprints of their habits from their unique lifestyles made up the scent of their body. As such, I hope my mother’s insecurities about her age gradually evaporate. Because to me, she smells like the garden and kitchen, her favorite perfume, and the hairspray she uses every day without fail. She smells wonderful, like home.

Hello, I am Monica Lee from UC Davis! I am currently a sophomore working towards an English major with a minor in Psychology.
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