It Stinks: The Smell of Aging

Share via

Do middle-aged men smell worse than everyone else?

Shoji Nakamura, chief perfumer with Japan’s exclusive cosmetics firm, Shiseido, certainly thinks so. And he’s out to change that.

Nakamura, whose million-dollar nose is reputedly able to distinguish among some 2,000 different odors, says he first noticed a distinctive smell among middle-aged and older men in 1987 and spent the next decade thinking about it.

“I’m very interested in body odor,” he says.

Now, after painstaking research, Shiseido has acted on Nakamura’s evident insight. This September, the company will unveil what it says is the world’s first product line of shampoos, powders and air fresheners designed to block, cover and otherwise obscure the unique smell of growing old.


His latest olfactory innovation has apparently struck a powerful chord with the cleanliness-conscious Japanese--if all the media hoopla is any indication--as newspapers, magazines and TV programs here proclaim the merits of his revolutionary discovery.

For researchers at Shiseido, the largest cosmetic maker in Japan and the fourth-largest globally, the bottom line is that people over 40, particularly men, produce much more of an unsaturated aldehyde called nonenal than the rest of society. That, the company says, is the crux of the problem.

Nonenal is described as a key ingredient in traditional body odor, but Shiseido says it generates a more distinctive, diffuse smell in older men and is not limited to places like the underarm, where traditional deodorants are effective.

At Shiseido’s research lab in Yokohama, three men and a woman in white coats carefully handle two small glass jars of what they say is concentrated elderly smell before sliding them across a table to give a visitor a whiff. Along with the unique opportunity comes a warning not to get too close.

The smell emanating from the little bottles is musty and does in fact evoke some vague childhood memory of an elderly neighbor couple’s house. Marketing wizard Shiseido, which began as a modest Tokyo drugstore, didn’t build up $5.2 billion in annual sales by allowing its vital discoveries to remain vague childhood impressions, however.

In language worthy of a wine connoisseur on a tear, Shiseido goes on to describe its newly isolated old-age smell as an “unpleasant and greasy odor with a grassy nuance.”


Segments of the Japanese public are chiming in with a cacophony of criticisms of the body odor of ojisan--a Japanese term that literally means “uncle” but carries an unpleasant connotation of an older man out of style, socially inept and, now, smelly.

The magazine Weekly Bunshun in a recent issue highlights several twentysomething women complaining about their older male relatives and co-workers under the headline: “Ojisan’s smell will be gone! Could this be true?”

Asked to describe the ojisan smell, the young women liken it to fertilizer, dead leaves, “squished aphids” and “a cheap, sleazy hotel.”

Gunze Co., a clothing company that has capitalized on this strongly held sentiment with a new line of “Deogreen” underwear designed to inhibit microorganisms blamed for the dreaded middle-age smell, recently surveyed 278 young women aged 16 to 25 on the distasteful topic of “men’s perspiration and body odor.”

Gunze found that 92% believe “something must be done about this problem,” while 65% said they find the smell of their boss particularly offensive.

Yukiko Matsushita, a 23-year-old receptionist at a dental office in downtown Tokyo, is quick to agree. “My boss, my father, there are so many smelly men around me,” she says. “I think middle-aged men are a lot stinkier than other generations.”


For Akiko Seizaki, a 26-year-old sales clerk who works at a book publisher, the biggest concern is crowded trains. “It only takes one ojisan with a strong stench to smell up the whole car,” she says. “If I’m standing close to someone like that, I feel like throwing up.”

A television commercial for Gunze’s no-smell underwear taps into this overarching, underarming anxiety. In the 30-second spot, a young woman listens to a Walkman on a crowded commuter train, her face jostled at the armpit level of several older men. Eventually the smell gets so bad she screams, tears her headphones off and jams the two ear pieces into her nostrils.

Unpleasant odors are processed by the left side of the brain, which sends an urgent signal to escape from the odor, according to the Japanese book “Nose and Human Relations.” Talk about a testament to the brain: Humans can detect some 100,000 smells, the book says.

For his part, Tetsuya Ishizaki, a 52-year-old local government official, believes all the social railing against ojisan is unfair. “I don’t understand why middle-aged men get so much criticism,” he says. “I get offended when young girls on the train wear too much perfume, but I don’t complain.”

Takahiko Furata, a professor and the director of Tokyo’s Modern Social Research Institute, says the anti-ojisan campaign and attendant publicity mirror an underlying societal shift. In many people’s minds, middle-aged Japanese salarymen are linked with the fortunes of Japan Inc., he says. And as the economy has deteriorated, the group’s social standing has also diminished.

“Fathers lost their authority with their role increasingly limited to that of breadwinner,” Furata says. “Now with some of them losing their jobs, their position is even weaker.”


Kenji Sato, the author of several books on popular Japanese culture, says wives and daughters of these men are the target buyers for many of these products, not the men themselves.

“The notion that these middle-aged men, the traditional backbone of Japanese society, will be intimidated into using them is rather disgraceful,” he adds.

Back at Shiseido’s research institute, in an apparent trick of the trade, chief perfumer Nakamura jerks the bottle of concentrated ojisan odor in front of his nose several times in a sequence vaguely reminiscent of an epileptic fit before confiding that his usual research specialty is the gentle waft of roses and orchids, not body odor.

Nakamura, who rarely forgets a smell, says that when Shiseido finally decided to pursue his discovery, the first step was to call on 23 company employees and relatives between the ages of 20 and 70 to sleep in the same undergarments for three straight nights.

Targeting the stronger-smelling, over-40 male samples, the research team then spent several months isolating various component “fatty acids” extracted from the clothing. They eliminated these one by one until they found the culprit: a fatty acid that mixes with air to form something called nonenal, which was reportedly two or three times more concentrated in middle-aged and elderly men than in other groups, although “we don’t have exact figures.”

On the day it was isolated, researchers rushed over to Nakamura and proffered him a big whiff.


“Yes! That’s the one I remember from 1987!” he said excitedly. Another sniff test by a ranking female manager at the company evoked similar squeals of latent recognition. Eureka!

Products a Blend of Science, Marketing

Having identified and isolated nonenal, it was now time to counteract its power, which the team did using a secret process that nose-neutralizes these sands of time. Then it was time to test up to 200 different ingredients needed to mask whatever bits slipped through the nonenal net, including lemon, jasmine and peppermint. The company has four patents pending and says the products are equally suited to both sexes and all age groups.

The promotional literature includes an impressive collection of tongue-twisters to suggest there is high science at work, including “9-hexadecenoic acids,” “lipid peroxide” and “headspace gas chromatography.”

Researchers say that throughout the process they had to walk a bit of a stinky slope. They wanted to hide the offensive smell but didn’t want some overpowering perfume that would seem unnatural. “Body odor is really an individual’s signature,” Nakamura says.

The resulting products let older people, especially men, “feel clean and refreshed without people knowing there’s something different right away, a subtle change that allows them to feel like themselves,” explains senior perfumery scientist Shinichiro Haze.

Indeed, Shiseido officials are feeling pretty refreshed themselves, and subtly excited about the new line’s profit potential, although evidently not enough to use the esteemed Shiseido name, lest it erode the value of the brand. The new products will sell under the Beauty Technology signature at between $3.75 and $12.50, compared with up to $415 for Shiseido’s tony creams and perfumes.


While Shiseido claims the discovery evolved from scientific discovery and was not a response to Japan’s demographics, underlying trends certainly don’t hurt. Japan has the fastest-aging population on Earth, with a projected 25.5% of its people slated to be older than 65 by 2020, compared with 21% for Italy and 16% for the U.S.

Takehiro Takao, an analyst with New Japan Securities Co., says the older male group has traditionally used relatively few health-care products. This contrasts with younger Japanese men, he adds, who are using more makeup and other cosmetics.

“Middle-aged men might have trouble wearing makeup but may get used to this idea,” he says. “I think its going to be a big hit.”

Nationalities Vary in Their Odors

But why limit this incredible breakthrough to Japan? Since when does body odor respect national boundaries? For Americans, it would seem the ultimate aging-boomer product.

Shiseido executives say they’re open to that. But when it comes to bodily aromas, marketing across international borders isn’t that simple. Chief perfumer Nakamura says body odor is determined by several factors, including species, genes, age, sex, physical condition, diet, drugs and level of stress, along with national and possibly racial components. Among North Asians, Koreans exude the least body odor, he believes, followed by the Chinese and then the Japanese.

“The Japanese have a fishy odor,” he adds.

On the other hand, the motivations appear universal.

“It’s sort of embarrassing to go buy these products, so if someone bought them for me I’d use them,” says Harumi Oyama, the 60-year-old owner of his own trading business. “Mainly I don’t want younger girls to think I stink.”