Why Does My Scalp Smell? + 6 Tips to Prevent the Odor

I know how frustrating it can be to have a foul-smelling scalp, despite not changing your shampoos or hair care routine. 

Want to know how? From personal struggles and extensive research, I have found solutions that help maintain scalp odor and freshness. Read on to learn more. 

What Does Your Scalp Smell Like? 

The factors behind your smelly hair and hair type will give off different smells. But, to be rudely honest, they will generally be unpleasant odors.

Maybe your hair smells like rotten eggs, or maybe your hair smells like mildew; it all comes down to smelly scalp causes.

Dr. Zeel Gandhi says, “The scalp microbes break down your scalp sebum, sweat or dead cells, into certain acids that cause an unpleasant foul smell.”

Is it Normal for Scalp To Smell? 

lady with curly damaged hair

While smelly scalp syndrome is not typical, it is relatively common, as our scalp is thick skin with hair.

Dr. Anabel Kingsley says,  “Basically the skin on your scalp is like the skin on your body. It has sweat and oil glands too, so, if you wouldn’t wash your body for a few days, the sweat and oil would build up and cause a stench.”(1)

Just as there is a peculiar smell in our bodies, our scalp has a peculiar smell too. In some cases, the smell is overpowering; in others, it is mellow.

Excessive sweating may intensify the scalp smell. You may even find that your hair smells after washing because of your body chemistry.

Smelly Scalp Odor and Causes

1. Wet Dog Smelling Scalp: 

In the human body, the hair produces oil through the sebaceous glands. Over sebum and oil production can result in smelly hair that resembles a wet dog.

Sweat mixed with the bacteria on hair follicles can emit a foul smell. This is most common in people who participate in vigorous activities or sweat through their hair.

Another reason may be mold growth on the hair! Yeah – it is as bad as it sounds. Mold can grow in your hair, and icky as that is, it can lead to hair odor.

Check out this video.

2. Sulfur Smelling Scalp:

The smell is likely due to sweat in the body. Apocrine glands are a type of sweat glands that produce sweat through hair follicles. (2)

Sweat from these glands has high doses of lipids, ammonia levels, and sugars. This may be causing a sulfur-like smell, especially during excess sweating.

3. Fish Smelling Scalp:

Trimethylaminuria is a fairly rare condition that can cause a strong fishy smell in the hair. It is also referred to as ‘fish odor syndrome.’ (3)

This is a genetic condition and is passed on through generations. So, if you don’t have this foul odor now, it is unlikely that you will get it in the future.

4. Cheese Smelling Scalp: 

Your hair is a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, and that is perfectly normal. But the breeding ground for your scalp microbiome can be imbalanced.

This may be due to pH levels in your hair product, yeast infection, or fungal growth. Any of these reasons may lead to an unpleasant smell in the infected person.

How To Make Your Scalp Smell Good?

1. Take Care of Your Hair Hygiene

A smelly scalp is often the result of bad hair hygiene or unwashed hair.

blonde lady taking a shower

Dr. Julie K. Karen, says, “If you don’t wash regularly, you may experience a product buildup, oil buildup, and sweat that can leave an odor.”

My hair loves the Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo. It is an all-natural, sulfate-free shampoo that takes away my bad odor completely.

2. Use Apple Cider Vinegar

Washing your hair with a cup of apple cider vinegar can help balance your scalp microbes and keep the scalp healthy.

You will experience a pungent smell on the hair right after giving it an ACV rinse, but the sour smell should go away once the hair is dry again.

3. Use Aloe Vera

Seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff is a fairly common hair issue that can lead to a stinky scalp. It causes scalp irritation giving rise to a breeding ground for bacteria. (4)

aloe vera leaves

Aloe Vera has been used effectively against dandruff for centuries. It is also loved for its anti-inflammatory purposes.

If you apply aloe vera directly on the hair and then following by a rinse, it can help alleviate dandruff completely.

4. Use Essential Oils

bottle of essential oils

Using essential oil in your bath such as tea tree oil can help drastically reduce the smell of the scalp. It has powerful antimicrobial and antibacterial properties.

This helps eliminate the terrible odor of your hair.

Tea tree oil is also effective in removing dandruff, another root cause of oily scalp and dead skin cells buildup.

5. Try Lemon Juice

The benefits of lemon juice are plenty and can be handy in solving your smelly hair syndrome. (5)

Applying teaspoons of lemon juice can help thwart fungal infections and smell-inducing bacteria. It even balances your scalp microbiome and even eradicates itchy scalp.

And now you know how to make the scalp smell good and make sure you have a pleasant smell every single time!

How to Avoid Smelly Scalp? 

You already know how to fix a smelly scalp but can you avoid it in the first place? Most definitely.

The best cure is always prevention and with a good hair care routine, you can get rid of strong odor completely.

1. Use an Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

Certain products in the market not only get rid of dandruff and flakes but also relieves you from an irritated scalp.

a lady massaging her hair using a shampoo

Using an anti-dandruff or a medicated shampoo can help prevent your scalp from stinking in the first place.

2. Give Yourself an Oil Massage

Massaging your hair with coconut oil has been a time-tested tradition that helps your overall hair health. Not only will you have shiny and strong hair, but it also helps alleviate scalp odor.

Coconut oil has been known to escalate good bacteria in the hair while removing and decreasing fungi.

In addition, it also helps with dandruff and flaky skin. All the more reason to take a tub of coconut oil and give yourself a good massage.

I love using virgin coconut hair on my oil as well as on my face.

And if I’ve got the time, I ask my beauty stylist to give me a good hair oil massage and sit under the steamer for a good 30 minutes or so.

When I get out, my hair is shiny and silky and smells incredible!

3. Eat a Healthy Diet

You might have probably heard the phrase, “you are what you eat” and it is particularly true when it comes to your body odor as well.

Eating certain stuff may have an overall negative impact on your body chemicals causing you to give off a rather pungent smell.

Eating organic food and maintaining good health can help stave off a bad odor.

 4. Check for Scalp Psoriasis

lady inspecting the scalp of a woman

If nothing else is working and your scalp odor is quite chronic, then you might have scalp psoriasis. It is generally accompanied by a flaky, itchy scalp at which point you may have to see a doctor.

This is one of the number one causes of an unpleasant smell from the scalp. Thankfully, this is completely treatable and is a common condition.

Your doctor will prescribe you certain medications to help you deal with your skin condition. These may include Calcipotriene, Tazarotene, or Betamethasone-calcipotriene.

These are fairly easy to use and come in a gel, foam, cream, or liquid form. Using it as prescribed will help get rid of the smell as well as other symptoms that accompany it.

FAQs

What shampoo is best for smelly scalp?

lady washing her scalp thoroughly

There are several shampoos, including dry shampoo, for the smelly scalp available on the market that can help provide relief to a stinky scalp.

Does dandruff make your scalp smell?

Dandruff may indirectly cause your scalp to smell because it can lead to flake buildup and irritation which breeds bacteria.

What helps with scalp psoriasis?

Salicylic acid and tar help with scalp psoriasis. Does scalp psoriasis smell? Yes. Baking soda and apple cider vinegar can help.

What causes fungus on the scalp?

lady scratching the back of her head because of mildew in hair

Candida is mostly responsible for causing yeast infection and fungus on the scalp. They can be easily treated with over-the-counter treatments such as ketoconazole.

Conclusion

There you have it – the exact cause and solution to smelly scalps that can be taken care of using the correct hair care products. 

With a bit of help from science and nature, you can not only fight off bad odor from preventing it from showing up ever again. Until then, enjoy a good hair day, every day! 

See you in the following article, my lovelies. 
 

lady covering her nose because of the bad smell of her scalp

Resources:

  • 1. Cardellino C. How to Combat Hair Odor [Internet]. Cosmopolitan. 2013 [cited 2022 Aug 1]. Available from: https://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/how-to/a16091/how-to-combat-hair-odor/
  • 2. Sweat smells like ammonia: Causes and treatment [Internet]. www.medicalnewstoday.com. 2021 [cited 2022 Aug 1]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/sweat-smells-like-ammonia#what-is-sweat
  • 3. NHS Choices. Trimethylaminuria (“fish odour syndrome”) [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/trimethylaminuria/
  • 4. Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff: A Comprehensive Review. Journal of clinical and investigative dermatology [Internet]. 2015;3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4852869/
  • 5. Otang WM, Afolayan AJ. Antimicrobial and antioxidant efficacy of Citrus limon L. peel extracts used for skin diseases by Xhosa tribe of Amathole District, Eastern Cape, South Africa. South African Journal of Botany [Internet]. 2016;102:46–9. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0254629915003610
About Sylvia K

Sylvia is one of the most joyful people you’ll ever meet. She is a high advocate of self-love and encourages women to take care of themselves both mentally and physically. She loves girly talks especially salon talks (a little gossip doesn’t hurt) and spends most of her free time on skincare or hair care. READ HER LATEST ARTICLES. Find her on LINKEDIN. Learn more about her HERE.

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