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Why Do Thrifted Clothes Smell Like Thrift Stores?

Anyone who loves thrift store of vintage shopping knows that there’s a strange, specific scent that comes with these venues – and its all hidden in the wears you want to wear.

It’s kind of like an old blanket but also like wet cardboard. You could call it “musty” or “dusty” and, if you squint your nostrils, sometimes it kind of smells like popcorn. Regardless of where you are in the country, no matter what store you are in, this smell exists in some capacity. Perhaps everything just needs a good washing, to clean up whatever dead skin cells are causing that stank.

I’ve never really stopped to think about these smells, to understand why they happen, but they represent a certain cultural touchstone for those who seek the reused. But why does this smell happen? Apparently it’s something called “malodor,” which is just a fancy, scientific way of describing smelly clothes. And where does it come from? The New York Times explains, via sending away a selection of vintage clothing to a laboratory that studies this.

12 of 18 of the key malodor molecules that contributed to the bouquet of that vintage smell were derived from body soils, which is a gentle way of saying your skin, your sweat, your oils. Distressing! But, perhaps, not nearly as distressing as the list of odor descriptors that accompanied the compounds. Sweet, sour, oily, herbal. Fatty. Whiskey, nutty, cheesy, sweaty. Stinky feet. Fermented. Bready.

The source of the remaining compounds that made up that vintage smell were environmental contaminants like car exhaust, gasoline, dry cleaning solvents, food and perfume or, as the team at P & G put it, “the odor molecule peaks form a record of the odors” that the garments were exposed to over its life.

Like anything in the world, our old clothes are sponges of everything around us that smells – and “thrift store smell” might just be the best (worst) amalgamation of how contemporary life smells. Kind of gross but beautiful, right? It’s filthy charming: we have a smell. And, for those who look to recycle clothing in this way, we know this nasal calling card all too well. People who work at hospitals and nursing homes can probably vouch similarly as well.

For most of us who want to get rid of this scent, the Times recommends an unpacked washing of clothes in cold water followed by an air drying (which is pretty ironic, given environmental air has influenced these clothes’ scents so much already). For items that can’t be washed? Kitty litter apparently sucks the scentual life (Or death?) out of them.

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