You Smell Like Outside

Posted by on May 21, 2010 in News, Technology

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.


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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165 thoughts

  1. Brittany Canon

    September 28, 2016

    I moved to Texas almost 2 years, and never experienced the smell before this summer. Both of my boys, if they play in the sunshine without a shirt on, long enough for them to tan, they get a very distinct odor. It does not happen to my husband, daughter or myself. I can always tell when the boys snuck into the backyard because they just smell, though it was not like that back in the spring or winter…or even on days that are not sunny.

  2. None of these answers apply to my dogs. We live in the country, all they have to do is go outside in the heat, stay maybe 10 minutes and come in with a musky stench behind their neck, down their back as if it comes out of their pores and it goes away until they are back in the heat

  3. I get that smell also, in summer – sometimes doggy, sometimes like black tea. Just rinsing off thoroughly is better than loading up with chemicals and potential toxins just to mask a natural odor, in my opinion. When you do that you also lose the connection with your body’s processes – your skin conveys a huge amount of information about your general health, if you will only learn to observe it.

  4. very interesting, David. I am surprised you didn’t experience that outdoors smell while in Haiti. I will have to do more research on geosmin.

  5. David Gaddy

    September 9, 2016

    One of the reasons I did this research, to begin with, is because of the stigmas found when you start asking this question. Everyone assumes it is some sort of body odor. Or I’ve heard the air pollutant thing as well. However, I really think the geosmin bacteria byproduct is the culprit, which in large amounts is considered a water pollutant itself. I’m still not sure why some locations have larger amounts of geosmin. But I really don’t think it’s tied to air pollutants or diet. For example, I’ve done some work in Haiti which is full of pollution. There are a million bad smells everywhere in the cities, but this particular geosmin smell is not there at all. I drove around in the back of a truck all day long and never got that musty smell in my clothes. I come back to my rural home in Texas and after a few miles in my convertible… I’m covered with that smell. Go figure.

  6. I didn’t realize I said it only happens to me. I’ll clarify: Everyone I’ve asked say they are familiar with that outdoors smell and they all pretty much agree that it resembles the smell of wet dog or something stale. Not only my friends agree but hundreds of other people agree also. This phenomenon isn’t isolated to just me.

  7. I lost mine with a plant based diet, clearly is linked to that because why do you think it happens to just you? And not everybody else. If it was an external thing then it would affect everybody but it doesn’t. It also has something to do with you and after battling with this issue for a long time I finally beat it and got rid of the outside smell.

  8. I did my own experiment and I believe the odor is connected to pollution. I live in the Chicagoland area (roughly 40miles from downtown). I visited my brother who lives in Auburn, AL. I was outside for hours and when I came in my clothes still smelled like I took them out of the dryer! verses when I spend just a few moments outside in Naperville i smell like outside.
    Auburn is much less populated than Chicago and therefore has less pollution. You can feel the air is cleaner down there.
    So I am not sure what it is with pollution but I believe that is the culprit.

    By the way, to me, the outside smell smells like stale wet dog with a hint of metal like iron or copper. i hate it so much.

  9. To me, it smells a bit like chlorine. I actually don’t agree with the acidity argument. There is no way to change your pH by something you consume bc your body automatically adjusts its own pH (hence all that stuff about alkaline water being healthier for you is BS). I’m not saying consuming apple cider vinegar doesn’t work to combat the smell but maybe it has more to do with micro orgasms and adjusting your gut flora rather than an acidity issue.

  10. Can I say a big big big thank you for this information…… I have been wondering about this smell for many many years and never knew what it was, but it is such an offensive smell I am able to detect immediately. The one thing that I noticed was it gets worse during different seasons. For example in the winter time the outside smell is different then in the summer… Anyway thank you again for this informative and helpful information.

  11. How many of us drink bottled water? I smelled a plastic bottle after it had been out a while and open, that was the smell. I have quit using bottled water and the smell is going away. How long has the bottled water been in storage may be the factor?

  12. “Permitting” ugh autocorrect fails us. Let me assure you I meant “Permeating” lol

  13. Leila

    June 9, 2016

    Ok. It has been stated before but I think I’ve found some sort of a solution to minimise the smell so much that it’s only left in your clothes (hardly on cotton clothing). So, the vinegar mix has been stated before, I doubted it at first but I’ve been doing it now for 3 weeks and it works. My “outside smell” has completely dropped. Although it’s still in some of my clothing. At least it’s not permitting the air when I walk in. So that’s a plus. I’ve also found out that it’s got to do with your own Ph, acidity as well as the material of the clothing. Seeming as it doesn’t happen to everyone, acidity must play a big role in this. I believe that if you change your diet to a more alkaline based diet, plant based diet. The dog smell will drop completely, permanently & completely off your clothes as well. Vinegar is acidic but when it’s in your body it turns alkaline so it’s definitely has something to do with your ph. Maybe we are just more acidic than others. Who knows. But if you go down the vinegar mix route, it will definitely do wonders.
    2 tablespoon of organic apple cider vinegar
    2 tablespoon of organic honey
    And a pinch of cinnamon
    In a cup of warm water.
    Ensure your drink it with a straw so that the vinegar does not damage your teeth in the long run.
    Or else, change your diet to a plant based diet.
    Yes, you cannot change the geosmin in the air it’s completely out of our control but what you can control is what you put in your body.
    I hope this helps & good luck to you all X

  14. Mary Lou

    June 9, 2016

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve been thinking it was the “free and clear” laundry detergent not cleaning our clothes properly or possibly bad water in our water heater. I started using perfumed detergent and our clothes smell great straight out of the washer. But the minute we come inside after being outdoors for only a few minutes (and not doing anything to make ourselves sweaty) my husband and I both have that rank, stinky smell …it’s in our hair, on our skin and in our clothes. I know I have a very sensitive nose (more so than most) so I guess there’s nothing that can be done. Maybe I’ll start carrying mentholatum with me and put a dab in my nose to offset the “great outdoors” smell!! God bless you and your family.
    Mary Lou
    Overland Park KS

  15. 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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