You Smell Like Outside

Posted by on May 21, 2010 in News, Technology
190 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. 😉

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190 thoughts

  1. yes, this outdoor smells lingers on my jacket after being outside for a while, it’s very annoying and it stinks! I always have to carry around a spray to get rid of the smell! I don’t get how some people doesn’t have the smell on their jacket, is it the fabric? the detergent I used? good to know others are experiencing this as well

  2. I have been experiencing this since I was a kid. My mom and me would call it the “Great Outdoors” smell. If I came in the house from playing, my mom would be like “Girl, you smell like the Great Outdoors”. lol I grew up in Western Michigan, by the way. I don’t think my town in Michigan has much pollution and the neighborhood I grew up in was wooded other than the houses/schools.
    Now, that I am in the DC area, I still smell it. I work and live in Alexandria, VA which is about 15 minutes outside DC and when I walk to lunch I come back in my job smelling like the Great Outdoors. I did today. I could slightly smell it on myself. And today is not a hot day, so I doubt the sun has anything to do with it. It is a 45-50 degree cloudy day in this area. So, maybe the comment about it happening on hot OR DRY days is true, because the air outside is quite dry.
    I saw someone comment about smelling it on their bottled water. I have smelled it on my bottled water many times as well. I also have smelled it on my granite counters, just as someone already said. I think it has something to do with things that are clean. Something from the outdoor air is interacting with the soap/clean scent. I noticed I only smell it on my granite counters in the kitchen when I have just wiped them off with cleaning solution. Also, if I have the windows open and I have clean clothes that I’m taking out of the dryer, I’ll start to smell in on the just cleaned fresh clothes. That’s why I think the person who said they go to people’s houses that aren’t clean and they don’t smell it, but they smell it at their house that is clean. It’s because the unclean people don’t use soap/cleaning solutions as much as they do. And it seems that the more you wash your dog, the more the dog will smell like “Great Outdoors”. It definitely is tied to soap/cleaning solutions.

  3. My two cents… I am not convinced yet it is geosmin or at least ONLY geosmin. I am well aware of the scent and have been for as long as I can remember. My instincts (as opposed to actual knowledge) tell me that the sun and level of humidity has a lot to do with it. It seems like the drier or hotter the air is, the more I smell it on people/myself. It always fades away after a little. After researching geosmin, it says it’s volatile, which would make sense that the smell dissipates after a while – just like burning essential oils. That fact makes me think maybe it is geosmin.

    I’m just saying, since geosmin is ALWAYS there, other factors come into play. For example, I don’t smell it as much when someone is in shade. I also notice the smell MUCH less at night or none at all. We know that heat speeds up air molecules. Anyway, this is getting to complicated. Bottom line: it may be geosmin but the sun has a lot to do with why we smell it, in my opinion.

  4. This smell has been driving me crazy for so long!
    It’s not the smell on me it’s the smell in my house when I open my windows, the entire house smells like a wet dog. My house is extremely clean and I have no pets. I am actually obsessively clean so I can’t imagine why it would smell when I open my windows. I have often questioned the chemicals in the cleaning supplies and water. When the air hits my granite countertops and glass top stove surface the wet dog smell is so intense. If I try to use glass cleaner on my stove top the smell intensifies. I go in other peoples houses that have their windows open and aren’t very clean like I am and their house doesn’t smell. I can’t even let fresh air in my house because it smells like a wet dog as soon as I open the window. Any suggestions, please help

  5. I have always wondered why this happens!
    I’ve lived in Bahrain – a desert island , and Canada- the smell was there in both places.
    I think the smell is there everywhere on earth – just that you can’t smell it on yourself, and only smell it when someone else comes inside. If you were our with a friend, and you both come in at the same time- you can’t smell it on you or your friend. But a third person that stayed in will smell It.
    THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH FOR LOOKING INTO THIS!!

  6. Adair Renning

    October 12, 2017

    Well, this is a relief to find!! My husband and I were discussing why our small dog brings in an unpleasant smell on his fur when he comes in from outside! Even the day after he is bathed, when he goes outside, even for a very short time, he bring this wave of rancid odor in with him. And we’ve watched to make sure he’s not rolling in anything. When we stand outside we don’t smell anything in the air, but if we hang clothes out to dry……same thing. They definitely don’t smell fresh! Just wish there was a way to get rid of the smell on our dog, other than bathing him every day or keeping him inside all the time………..which ain’t gonna happen!

  7. Hey wow! Just like everybody else here, I always thought I was the only one aware of the “outside smell,” but just a few minutes ago my husband kissed my forehead and said “I don’t know if it’s just me, but whenever it’s windy outside I can smell it on your forehead.” I was just like “OH MY GOODNESS YOU CAN SMELL IT TOO!?”

    I don’t know why I’ve never looked it up before… I guess I just thought it was my own natural smell and there was nothing I could do about it. For me it’s only when it’s windy outside or if I’ve spent a good deal of time in the sun, and honestly I kind of like the smell because I grew up associating that scent with fun outside things. It smells like mountain adventures to me. 🙂

    I’m a college student studying biology, so maybe I’ll make discovering the source of the “outside smell” my senior project! I’ll start by researching geosmin! Then I could share the results with you all. 😉

  8. I am from Trinidad, WI and as a little boy this smell was there. We called it “fresh”. Pollution was not a problem so I don’t think that is where it comes from. There are degrees to this smell…wet dog when kids come inside, outside for adults…whatever you call it it is offensive. To me it goes away after the person have been inside for a while. For several years I was of the mind it was the iron in our blood…BUT as of thirty minutes ago I had to rethink that conclusion. We live in the country in northern Pa and when my wife come in from the garden she smells like “outside” and she keeps her distance. She had no idea what I am talking about but respects my opinion. This evening after a warm day we had alcoholic beverages on the covered deck. When we retired inside I poured another shot and OMG the glass smelled so “fresh” it was extremely off putting. I told my wife this is what I am talking about…smell this glass…it was empty. Now she finally gets it…Her response was “that is nasty”. This is one of those things once you get it you will always smell it. So, please don’t think that you are alone…this is part of life and have nothing to do with you personally. Geosmin is most likely the culprit.
    As a child fresh killed chicken smelled like this which is why we called it “fresh”. After handling the chicken your hands just had that awful smell. The fix was as simple as squeezing a lemon in water and letting the chicken sit in it for a few minutes. When finished handling the chicken rub your hands with the lemon halves. Presto…you don’t feel like chopping them off!!
    This was not the first time my glass had a smell but today it was way up there. Our water comes from a spring and is delicious with no chemicals added. The glass only acquire the smell if it was outside…but not always.
    So this took the iron in the blood theory out the door…yet I did handle the glass so next time I will use a glove to take the glass outside with a shot of vodka and let it sit a while and see if it picks up the smell.

  9. I had no idea that things like this would be on the internet. I enjoyed reading all the comments and suggestions about this outside odor problem on the skin, hair, and clothes. I have experienced this problem for years and always wondered why I smelled like a wet dog when I come from outside and my friends still smelled of their perfumes or body lotions. I didn’t want to be around anyone and tried to carry a small bottle of perfumed lotion in my pocket to squeeze a little out at a time and rub it on my arms and clothes so I wouldn’t smell so bad. I still suffer with this problem today. I will try the vinegar drink to see if this will help.

  10. Lisa M. Basile

    September 15, 2017

    YOU HAVE LITERALLY SAID EVERYTHING I HAVE EVER THOUGHT.

    I HATTTTTTTTTTTTE THE SMELL. OMG. THANK YOU FOR THIS POST! I FEEL SO LESS CRAZY.

    Sorry, caps, I’m excited.

  11. Thatgirl

    August 12, 2017

    Thank you everyone for your informative comments. I live in a city northwest of Phoenix and the odor outside permeates my small dog to the point it about makes me sick to breathe. I have wondered for years what could be causing this obtrusive odor. I never ever experienced this in the Midwest or California, where I lived for many years. I figured it was pollution in the air, as when my husband is outside doing the yard work, he also comes in with the same odor. In fact, this morning, after walking my dog, I came in smelling like her! Oh yuck!! I do have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities), so I am like a bloodhound to start out with. I’m about ready to move out of this state….believe me. I visited other states this summer and experienced no odor

  12. STL Mom

    August 9, 2017

    I grew up in India. I never experienced this smell over there. There was just the smell of the first rain drops which was rather pleasant. I started smelling this as soon as I moved to the US. I do have a very sensitive nose and have allergies. Now my kids, who earlier didn’t notice this smell, have also picked up on it. Only one of my friends understands what I’m talking about. I’ve to do loads of laundry because I ask my kids to change as soon as they come indoors from playing outside. Glad to know there are others like me.

  13. I would suggest looking at the eia.gov map. The pollution in the USA is outrageous. There are places where this rank smell is not as bad, away from pollution. When I was young and the pollution wasn’t as reduculous the awful smell didn’t exist; the air was fresh as it is meant to be.

  14. I really liked this and it helped put me on the track to at least knowing the “why’s” and “how’s”. I may have found an additional kernel of truth from an unlikely source: A water treatment company. According to them, Geosmin is also commonly waterborne and is commonly produces by the blue-green algae that often inhabits water treatment plant and reservoirs. (is your tap water ever stinky with the same “outdoor” smell – especially after a period of rain? If the info provided by that company is correct, every laundry cycle, we may be re-applying a fresh colony of Geosmin directly to our clothes. If this is true, we might be able to force the water departments to “clean up” their acts.. Here’s the link to the Clean-flo site. BTW, I have no interest or association with this company. https://www.clean-flo.com/drinking-water-reservoirs/trihalomethanes-geosmin-hydrogen-sulfide-odor/

  15. Wow, very useful information. So, there’s actually IS something going on. For years I thought it was me imagining the odor or the city air was polluted somehow with a metallic type smell or dry-cleaner smell gone-wrong…. no issues in the late fall or winter but come the warmer weather and summer time the odor rears its presents. I hope more attention to this situation comes soon so I can feel justified… I won’t have to stay silent about it at that point.

  16. Vicky Cravey

    May 10, 2017

    My kids came in with that smell after stepping outside for a few seconds. I also noticed it on each dog I’ve owned. I have to disagree with the wind or bacteria being the culprit. I tend to believe the sun has something to do with it. That the odor has a metallic tinge, I have always believed it had something to do with the sun causing a reaction with something metallic in their body; perhaps the iron in their blood emitting a scent through their pores, when heated up by the sun. Whatever it is, it only happened when the sun was out, and was a hot day, and they only had to step out for a few seconds. It didn’t happen in the winter or on windy days. So I don’t agree it’s bacteria. I am convinced it’s iron or metals in the body reacting to the rays of the sun. Perhaps something in their diet contributes to it, as well. My kids are grown now, and I’m not sure if this still happens to them, but I’ve been searching for answers for years.

  17. Lainey

    May 4, 2017

    I’ve been wondering about the “outside” smell for years. As the warm weather nears the smell in my hair is really gross does have that metal smell to it. Makes you uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing when around others. Good to know I’m not the only person experiencing this.The article was quite helpful as were some of the comments.

  18. I feel like as soon as people hear bacteria they think it’s bad and “dirty” but it’s easy to forget that there are also thousands of good bacteria that you literally couldn’t be alive without because they live and coexist inside your body.

    I have mentioned this smell to people before and it seems that no one I know knows what I am talking about but I seem to be the only person (at least on this post) that likes this smell. Reading through all the comments and how much so many people hate I feel like this article may not even be talking about what I was looking for…. I find that if I go outside on a strong sunshine day and just sit out there for a few minutes my skin get this wonderful smell. I find it intoxicating and I can’t get enough of it. I doubt it has to do with pollution or most of the things people have suggested here because I live on a subtropical island with very little pollution and I find I get it no matter where I am (e.g. the USA or Canada) but the sunshine does seem to need to be a certain strength for the effect to occur. I normally hate summer but that smell is one thing I love and I was always curious as to what causes it.

  19. Oh my goodness I have been experiencing this since 1990. I was living in England and I happen to smell this stench off of a visitor and once I smell this awful smell it seemed like the smell jumped onto my skin. I’ve been suffering from this disorder for a long time. I can’t do anything outside I love the outdoors and I can’t do anything that I love to do. It’s so depressing!!! As soon as I come into a building from the outdoors can make the scent of buildings change. And it is very contagious…..my scent can jump onto someone else’s scent and take over. What can be done about? It makes me physically ill. Every time I come inside I have to take a shower. I thought I was the only one suffering from this SMELL. Help me please!

  20. I thought I was the only one going through this.. I hate the smell so bad I have to wear strong fragrance on me and sometimes in my hair to cover up the stench.. I wish their was something to be done about this. I always feel insecure when I’m around people an wonder how do they manage to smell good after being outside and me I just end up smell like road kill.. Sometimes my parents gets it and my mom say there’s nothing that can be done that’s just life.. Hate it so much.. 🙁 .Makes me don’t want to go outside at times.

  21. I just transferred to a university in the center of Atlanta GA and the outside smell has soaked into all my clothes. The pollution in this city is intense so my clothes have that horrid smell to the max. I take a shower ,walk to class, and when I open the building door to go inside, my skin smells like i never bathed. I love the smell of the rain but when the summer outdoor smell hits it’s annoying. There are trees all around the campus so the outside smell is starting to make my hair smell bad… it’s aggravating.

  22. Melinda enderle

    February 18, 2017

    Thank God it’s not just me! The smell makes me sick!

  23. We live on a 3K acre Ranch just Southeast oh Houston. It is heavily wooded and narrow a creek . Some days the smell is so bad outside you don’t want to go outside. Smells like a wet dog. We killed a deer and while dressing it out the deer meat seemed to have the same odor. We guessed the smell is decaying debris. Usually smells the worst after a rain and it gets hot and humid outside. .

  24. Boomer Sooner

    November 28, 2016

    I live in in the rural east of Lawton Oklahoma. If you open the window, the air stinks outside. If you go outside for 5 minutes, you’ll come back stinking, even if you’re not sweating and just showered.

  25. Bryan Marquardt

    October 28, 2016

    I assumed it was bacteria in the air. The woods are especially full of decaying, rotting things. We call it “stinking of outdoor smell”.

  26. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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?

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

  38. 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.
    Ingredients:
    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

  39. 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

  40. 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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