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Remedies for "Aging Odor" Are Developed

September 28, 1999

A range of deodorizing products have hit the market. (Beauty Technology)

Japan had an exceptionally hot summer in 1999. Inside the packed trains and buses, many people surely winced at the body odor of their fellow passengers. Every person has body odor, to a greater or lesser degree, but what actually causes it? A researcher at Shiseido Laboratories has traced the problem to a fatty acid known as palmitoleic acid. He has also learned that the body of a person up to about the age of 30 does not secrete a noticeable amount of this substance, but that once a person--whether male or female--hits 40, the volume rises sharply. The volume of palmitoleic acid released by the human body is 10 times as great among people in their seventies as in their forties.

The "Odor of Aging"
Because body odor increases as a person ages, researchers at Shiseido Co.--Japan's largest cosmetics producer as well as one of the largest in the world--have coined the term "aging odor." In June 1999 the company announced that it had developed a spray and a lotion that chemically suppress this odor. For older people who have been concerned about their increased body odor, this was relieving news. Even before the products hit the market, the response was overwhelming: Beauty Technology Co., a new company founded in July 1999 by a Shiseido subsidiary to sell these and other products aimed at senior citizens, has sharply raised its estimated first-year sales volumes from the initial figure of 500 million yen (4.6 million U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar) to 2.5 billion yen (22.7 million dollars).

The person who pinpointed the source of body odor is Shoji Nakamura of Shiseido Laboratories. One of Japan's top perfumers, Nakamura can distinguish some 3,000 different scents. For about 10 years, Nakamura had been noticing a distinctive odor in gatherings of middle-aged and elderly people. As an olfactory professional, Nakamura felt determined to find the source of this odor. He also wanted to make a contribution to Japan's aging society by devising a means to eliminate or reduce the odor.

Using a special high-precision measurement technique, Nakamura--with the help of 21 adult male and female subjects--investigated unpleasant odors at minute levels that can barely be detected by the human nose. This investigation led Nakamura to palmitoleic acid as the culprit of body odor.

Over time, this fatty acid is broken down by bacteria inhabiting the skin or by lipid peroxides (which are present in larger quantities in older people), producing a substance called nonenal that "has an unpleasant and greasy odor with a grassy nuance." A common smell closely approximating this odor is that of old books. Nakamura was the first person in the world to track down the culprit of "aging odor" and explain the mechanism by which the substance is produced.

Other Products for Older People Also Popular
At first, Shiseido assumed that the main target for the new anti-odor products would be middle- and upper-aged people still in their active years. But as soon as newspapers and other media announced the products, the company was deluged with inquiries from people working at elder-care facilities. The overwhelming response to these products took Shiseido by surprise.

As a matter of fact, these days it seems that a company cannot go wrong by offering goods for older consumers. Examples include Viagra, which enhances sexual performance, and the hair-growing tonic RiUP--the Japanese version of the drug sold in the United States as Rogaine. With elderly people setting out to regain their youthful vigor by drawing on the power of these commercial blockbusters, the prospect of Japan's graying society may not be so grim after all.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.