Teens Can’t Smell Their Own B.O. — Sadly, the Rest of Us Can

Beth Stebner
teens body odor research
Photo: Getty Images

If it smells like teen spirit, don’t expect your teen to be able to smell it.

Scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark found that while adolescents can smell certain things just fine (like candy, ketchup, and junk food, for instance), they’re woefully unable to detect things like their own natural musk, sweat, and — perhaps worst of all — soap.

The study, published in the journal Chemical Senses, recruited 411 teens and 320 adults and asked them to detect 125 different smells.

While 92% of adults could recognize the smell of sweat, only 14% of teens could. Mercifully, there was a much smaller divide between adults (87%) and adolescents (84%) who could recognize the smell of soap.

But when it came to identifying things like cookies, ketchup, fruit snacks, cotton candy, and marshmallows, the teens who ruled supreme.

Both adolescents and adults could rightly identify stronger smells like coffee (98% to 95%, respectively), as well as fish, cinnamon, bacon, and cheese. But when it came to identifying fruits and vegetables, teens again scored poorly compared to their grownup counterparts.

Alexander Fjaeldstad, the lead author of the study and an assistant lecturer at Aarhus University’s Flavour Institute, wrote in the study that while scent has powerful links to memories early in life, it takes practice to correctly name what that the memory-triggering scent actually is. “Though odors are potent triggers of autobiographical memories from as far back as the first decade of life — and in a way closely linked to memory — the ability to name odors is an acquired skill that takes years to master and requires both perceptual and verbal training,” he writes, noting that sommeliers and baristas are trained to improve their smell recognition.

The study claims to be the first to dive deep into the theory that children and young adults are less perceptive on picking up specific scents because they’re unfamiliar with them, and could provide a reason why many young adults are perfectly fine with living in conditions that might require a Hazmat suit.

Still, the question remains — why didn’t we evolve the other way around, so parents would be immune to the various stenches and pungent odors of adolescence?

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