You Smell Like Outside

Posted by on May 21, 2010 in News, Technology
151 Comments

For years my family and I have discussed the oddity of the “outside” smell. I just thought this was a common thing. You go outside (especially on a windy day) and you come in smelling like “outside”. It’s kind of a musty, doggy, rankness that permeates you and gets in your clothes. This is especially true for kids and pets. They can run around outside for a few minutes and come in stinkin up the place.

I’ve always been aware of this smell, but then I gained a fondness for convertibles. Now, I cannot “drop-the-top” without infiltrating myself with this wondrous odor. I can walk in the door after the drive home and my wife promptly says, “You’ve been riding with the top down, haven’t you.” I started to think that there has to be a remedy to this stinky outside business, so I googled it. What I found was a complete lack of information about this. Apparently not everyone is experiencing it. Either it’s not happening in their area or their sniffer is immune to it. I found a few people asking similar questions on Yahoo! Answers, but the replies were very tedious.

Example:

Q. What is in the air that makes your clothes smell like outside?
A. Nothing. That is just sweat.

WRONG. This is not a body-odor smell. Besides I can walk onto my porch in 70 degree weather and do nothing for 5 minutes and obtain this odor.

A. It is physically impossible for the air to “have a smell”.

WRONG. Air/Wind can carry any number of odors. Ever been downwind of a hog-farm?

WARNING sidebar comment coming, but this is a peeve of mine. If you answer someone’s question on Yahoo! Answers or any other Q and A site, know the answer! It seems like everyone and their dogs answers these questions and do not know the answers. The point of these sites is to provide answers, not to sound important by making uninformed guesses. Sorry, I digress…

So I think I may have found the answer or at least part of it. Geosmin. I ran across this in a completely unrelated search, but the more I read about it the more I think it is the culprit. Geosmin is an odorous chemical mostly found in dirt. No one knows for sure, but it is thought to be the by-product of certain bacterias. The interesting thing is that the human smeller is particularly sensitive to geosmin. Very, very miniscule, microscopic portions of it can still be detected by our human noses. Here is another interesting thing: it can smell good in some situations and putrid in others. For example, ever walk into a freshly tilled garden and smell the fresh tilled dirt? That’s geosmin. Ever “smell rain” in the air? That’s geosmin. Ever encounter a “stinky” mud-hole? That’s also geosmin. Ever get a dirty taste in your tap water? Yes, even that is geosmin. It is considered a water pollutant in many areas of the country. My granddad used to say, “The lake must’ve turned over” when the tap-water tasted bad, but it must’ve been excess geosmin seeping into the water supply.

Geosmin through a microscope

Geosmin through a microscope


So, geosmin is very very small and can be carried on the wind and in the air. It maintains a dirty, musty smell and can settle into your clothing, hair, and even skin when you are exposed to it. Some regions have higher geosmin content than others and some people are not as sensitive to it’s smell. Hence the reason not everyone on Google or Yahoo! Answers knew what the question was about. Now I’m not 100% sure about this, but it makes logical sense that the mystical “outside” smell that has attacked kids, pets, and owners of convertible vehicles with it’s foul presence is a concentration of geosmin.

The downside is how to prevent it. Unfortunately, repelling geosmin is not easy. Engineers have worked hard on it due to the issue of it polluting water supplies, so I don’t expect to find a remedy soon. So for now I guess we’re stuck with “smelling like outside”. I’ll stock up on some Axe body spray and stash it in my glove box I guess. But if I walk by and leave a swath of a musty smell in my trail, just know that it’s not body odor. It’s just geosmin… well… or maybe just good Mexican food. šŸ˜‰

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151 thoughts

  1. a.eye

    May 26, 2016

    I have experienced this for decades. Just experienced again now after sitting on a terrace for 15 minutes eating lunch. Came back inside and my skin reeked of outside.
    I have always wanted to look up if others smell this/experience it, but have always neglected to look it up until today – thanks for the article!

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