Kids Aren't Bad at Identifying Smells. They Just Aren't Familiar With Many.


The ability of adults and adolescents to identify smells differs dramatically. Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Thinkstock
The ability of adults and adolescents to identify smells differs dramatically. Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Thinkstock

If you've ever walked into the musky den that is a teenager's room and were seriously worried that the teenager lacked olfactory senses, this one's for you.

A new study shows that adolescents — long criticized for being smelly, undershowered creatures awash in hormones — don't smell sweat as well as adults.

But while it's easy to crow that smelly teenagers are incapable of realizing their own stink, the study is a bit more nuanced. Before the researchers let participants sample odors, they gave a questionnaire asking how likely participants would be to recognize 125 common smells (i.e., their familiarity). While just 86 percent of 172 adolescents reported being familiar with the smell of sweat, adults weren't perfect either — only 92 percent of 238 adults reported being familiar with the smell. In other words, there were several adults who could be blissfully ignorant of any sweat they exuded, too.

But the study has a much broader takeaway: that familiarity with certain categories of smells is different in adults and kids. Adults were familiar with the smell of specific spices and environmental odors, like basil, thyme and lavender, that the teenagers weren't as familiar with. Adolescents were also less familiar than adults with the smell of vegetables and acrid foods.

When testing the participants' ability to identify — or actually smell and name — 16 odors, the researchers modified for differences in familiarity by using fewer odors that adolescents might not recognize. Previous research has shown that children are worse at identifying smells than adults. But after this adjustment for familiarity, adolescents were as good as adults at identifying smells, and even better at identifying cinnamon.

As we get older, certain categories of smell could become more identifiable than others. Children might have to build up experience with scents to correctly name and identify them. So, don't be surprised if only you can smell your teen's spirit