You Smell Like Outside

Posted by on May 21, 2010 in News, Technology
204 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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204 thoughts

  1. 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.

  2. 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???

  3. 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.

  4. :: 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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