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. 😉

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218 thoughts

  1. Hey guys! We just got a hight efficiency washer and dryer that requires high efficiency detergent. We used to smell after short stints in the outdoors and I was racking my brain to figure what, how and why. We noticed the difference right after we started using the new machines. My wife and I now actually keep our normal fresh smell throughout the day whether we venture outside or not. I believe that our outdoor smell problem has been defeated! 😀

  2. I’ve wondered the same thing. I don’t have that smell after going outside but my kids and husband do. Maybe it’s the Ph or hormones too?

    I do notice it more when it’s cold outside. It’s an earthy, musty, dank smell. I’ve talked to probably a dozen people about this phenomenon and no one has any idea what I’m talking about. So maybe it’s something in those of us who can smell it too and other people can’t?

  3. I am going with the gosmin theory. My wife never noticed it until I gave her a shot glass to smell. It was a summer’s day, in the shade and I had just used it. It had that pungent odour and she recoiled. No matter where in the world you are…that smell is there during hot weather.

  4. Paula O'Neal

    November 14, 2018

    I have this issue as well but could it effect some and not others? My co-worker & I would go outside to smoke at the same time & when I return to the office I would smell up the place but not her. Even after taken a shower & standing outside for 10 mins with neighbors then go back inside & being the only one to smell like children playing outside. You know, that loud pungent smell. Some of my family members have this smell in fresh air but there are some who doesn’t. I wonder why, could it also have to do with our PH balance blending with Geosmin, or something similar?

  5. David Gaddy

    October 18, 2018

    Ha Kate! I know exactly what you mean! I can get behind it for that reason too!

  6. I actually like this smell. It’s not so much that it’s a good smell as that it reminds me of the outdoors and playing outside as a kid.

  7. Genevieve Ritchie

    October 10, 2018

    We moved to NW Minnesota from NJ about 2 years ago. Ever since, every single time my 3 kids come in from playing in our back yard they STINK! They smell exactly like wet dogs. It drives me crazy! The smell gets on them, in their clothing, hoodies, coats, hats, gloves, etc. I give them a bath and can still smell it on them. I never had this issue in NJ and it only seems to happen in our yard. I don’t smell wet dog outside but only on them when they come in the house. I keep looking for an explanation and this is the only thing I have come across that offers a possible explanation. So, thank you! I will absolutetly be looking into geosmin!!

  8. Brenda Mims

    September 20, 2018

    I hate that smell. Thanks for your input. I’m going to shower now!

  9. Im very thankful to read this article as i too, looked online but found not a single thing relevant. I too, was annoyed beyond belief at all those STUPID Yahoo answers!

    Now, the only thing is, i still wonder if this is what im smelling due to the facts thay I mainly notice it during hot weather, and it is definitely worse during the day.

    Another oddity: i do not have to go outside to smell it. If i shower before sleep, when i wake up the next day (especially if the weather is hot), i can already smell it on me! I believe this may because this building has so many cracks and crevices where putrid polluted outside air can get inside.

    Oh, if i go outside with a hat covering my head, my hair will remain fresh smelling, but my hat, clothes, and skin will not!

    Yup, i bet anything the smell varies by what city you live in. I live in los angeles county which is horribly overdeveloped. It’s virtually all cement and asphalt. No rain, high humidity, very dusty and smoggy air. Climate change has given us around 8 or 9 months of hot (88 to 122 degrees) weather, chemicals and other unnatural stuff are everywhere, and there are so many streets and cars literally everywhere, including one somewhat busy street just 2 feet from my bedroom window.

    All of these must be contributing factors.

  10. Try rubbing some talc, or just simply arrowroot powder (which is oderless and you can get at the grocery or health food store) before you go outside. Lotion does the trick too. These are my fixes. Doesn’t always last all day, but it helps!!

  11. OMG yes i smell this smell and all the women in my family smell it too. Even though it saves electricity and its better for the environment i can’t not dry cloths outside. i live in Arizona but i loathe that smell!!!

  12. Thank you!! Your pioneering work has solved an issue which has perplexed my family for decades!! LoL. We live in Virginia. My wife just told me this yesterday so I ended up here. Kudos!

  13. Thank you for your blog on this topic. I live in Delaware and have been perplexed about this phenomenon for years. It is especially bad In this area and/or I have one of those sensitive noses! My husband just steps outside momentarily and he has the wet dog smell until he hits the shower. AND he thinks I’m crazy because he doesn’t seem to smell it. It is frustrating simply because I feel like I need to shower every time I’ve been outside. I agree that polyester seems to really grab and retain the odor more than cotton.

  14. Thank you so much for this post. We thought we were the only ones in the world to be blessed with these unfortunate smelling powers.

    My wife and I are from the West coast and we moved to the Atlanta area 2 years ago when we discovered this smell. When either of us would walk to the mail box and back, we come back inside smelling intolerably to the other.

    We are hoping to find some sort of remedy to prevent or counteract the smell from ever being created. So far, the only way we’ve found to completely remove the odor is by changing our clothing. It’s a pain, especially after a short trip to the mailbox…but it’s better than the alternative.

  15. rick ross

    July 13, 2018

    some times when I brush my teeth and go outside as soon as I brush to go to work I get a nasty wet dog smell in my mouth. I always think that its the water I rinse with but I think It must be the outside. Its freaking the nastiest taste and smell ever.

  16. I too am plagued with this terrible odor.

    Someone posted that they live in the chicagoland area, and I too live in that region.

    Its so bad… I can take a freshly laundered set of clothes, put them on, drive to work, and by the time I walk from my car to the front entrance, I can already smell the odor.

    It is beyond frustrating… and it almost chokes me it is so strong.
    It honestly makes me cough…

    Here are some facts:

    Many people have stated that this happens during the day or with sunlight… however this happens at night also.

    Not everyone can smell the smell.

    Polyester seems to attract it moreso than say… cotton or wool.

    Here is my speculation:

    Perhaps it is a type of bacteria, (maybe the wind blowing off the waters of a lake miles away?) which colonizes polyester very quickly. …and its growth is accelerated by sunlight, but is not hampered by the absence of sun.

    It honestly smells like polluted lake water, and I’m betting a nearby (several miles away) body of water is the culprit…… or maybe the lake has become a victim of the smell itself???

  17. Jae Cee

    June 16, 2018

    I totally get it! I started to believe pollutants were the culprit after my oldest son moved from out home in the Baltimore/DC area of MD to FL (about 30 minutes inland, Gulf side). My 2 younger sons & I visited and I quickly noticed that my teen sons did not smell like “outside” even after walking 1/2 mile to the gym, playing basketball for hours, then walking back. They arrived without that “outside” smile, despite being drenched in sweat and walking in the FL Summer sunshine. I started to believe it was because the air quality was much better due to A LOT less traffic and being so close to the ocean.

  18. :: I just wanted to say I only get this smell when wearing white cotton shirts. It doesnt affect my dark colored shirts, so i never wear white cotton. Today I put on a new cotton shirt and went outside in the shade for 10 mins and when I came in I got the smell. I havent smelled it for years because I stopped wearing white cotton until today. It reminds me of wet dog and I hate it. I will never wear white shirts again. ::

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