Smelly Hair Syndrome Causes, Treatments and Remedies

What causes smelly hair? What are some of the symptoms one can expect? Does it make you uptight or embarrassed? Do you know how to get rid of the objectionable or offensive odor? Go through this article to get all the answers you need.

Generally, hair odor can embarrass you and can make you very anxious. Just imagine how may feel after noticing a nauseating smell coming from your hair? For sure, it can be very uncomfortable. When one suffers a foul-smelling hair for a longer period, he/she may begin shying away from crowds and may avoid close contact with others to avoid shame.

To be clear here, this condition is majorly caused by bacteria being present on the scalp. Dr. Joel Schlessinger, MD, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon with a private practice in Omaha, NE, say “Smelly hair is a problem that occurs after (fungus) becomes present in the scalp.” There are several factors, which we are yet to talk about that can lead to this revolting condition.

Facts about hair odor

  • Smelly hair syndrome is the main reason for this problem
  • Both men and women can have this issue
  • Poor personal hygiene is not the major cause of malodorous hair condition as many believe but it can make the condition more severe
  • The syndrome can occur in both adults and children
  • There are several causes of this syndrome

What causes it

Below are the common causes you should be keen on:

1.  Smelly Hair Syndrome (SHS)

This is the main reason and it is due to microbial growth (bacteria, and/or fungus). It is described as a condition whereby an individual develops a smelly scalp even after washing his/her hair thrice in a day. Infected patients are presumed to have excessive oil and sweat secretion that worsen the condition. According to, excess oil and sweat also attract odors and lock them up on the hair leading to bad smell.

Production of extra oils and excess sweat (Excessive perspiration) is usually due to change in hormonal levels in the body leading to a hormonal imbalance as one of the major triggers. It would be wiser to consult the doctor immediately when overactive oil glands on the scalp are discovered or when the SHS symptoms noticed.

2.  Scalp Skin Conditions/Diseases

Skin conditions occurring on the scalp can also lead to bad smelling hair. Some of these conditions may lead to the itchy scalp that may urge one to scratch it. This will then lead to bacterial infections. According to, “It is usually the bacterial component that is most likely to be responsible for offensive smelling hair”

Some of the skin conditions on the scalp that can lead to odor and hair loss include:

  • Psoriasis due bacterial and fungal infections
  • dandruff,
  • dryness of the skin,
  • scalp acne,
  • seborrheic dermatitis
  • scalp ringworm
  • head lice

3.  weak immune system

A weak immune system is the beginning of many body disorders including odor on the scalp. Nourished Magazines explains that, healthy immune system regulates fungus in the body therefore, when the immune system is debilitated, candida growth cannot be controlled. The immune system will unable to balance off good fungus and dangerous bacteria. This will lead to symptoms such as odor from your hair because yeast growth cannot be controlled.

4. Environmental factors

Environmental factors such climate (hot, humid, cold or dry), living conditions, water quality, sun exposure, air exposure and microbes in specific regions are among the pronounced causes.

Wearing hats, caps, and scarves over your head can also be contributing factors to this issue. Smelly hair scalp due to environmental factors can be managed through proper care and proper hygiene.  Reducing the period to which your head is exposed to sun or covered can also avoid the occurrence of this problem.

5. Poor hygiene

Poor hygiene can also be among the common causes. If one doesn’t wash his/her hair regularly, there may be an accumulation of sweat, excessive oil (for those with excess oil secretion on the scalp), dirt and bacteria and without any doubt, this will automatically lead a smelly head.

A proper hygienic regime will always help you to get the answer to the question: why do I have a smelly hair. Note that, besides the fact that washing it regularly may be a vital remedy, make sure not to wash off crucial oils by washing it several times.

6. Microbial growth

This condition can also be caused by the presence of microbial growth. Just like other parts of the body, the scalp also has hair follicles that secrete sebum which help in lubricating the scalp but guess what? sometimes there could be lower secretion of sebum leading to a ‘storm’ in the scalp.

Low amount of sebum secretion will provide some small ‘cracks’ on the scalp where the microorganism will thrive on. In cases of overproduction of sebum on the scalp, these microorganisms will still thrive on the oily secretions. Such microorganisms will then release odorous substances and gasses that cause the hair to smell.

7. Hair care products

Some products also have the potential to cause this problem. They include hairspray, styling gels, oils and those products used to make hair thicker, keep it straight or change its color. These products can trap dust, microbes and accumulate dead skin cells leading to bad hair odor.

In addition, some of these products can irritate the scalp skin leading diseases which can also lead to hair that smells indirectly.

Apart from the above causes, below are more reasons that could lead to this problem:

  • Thyroid disorders
  • Normal skin flora shift – naturally occurring bacteria and fungi on the body.
  • Perfumes and scents
  • Vigorous physical activity
  • Stress and depression

Smelly hair in armpit, chin and groin area

Apart from the scalp, there are also other places e.g. armpit, groin and chin (or generally facial hair) that can have a smell. Some people also have a generally hairy body that can produce a bad odor.

The hair especially in armpit and groin area can have very bad stink and can be very embarrassing just like scalp.

As we have mentioned already, the smell is mainly due to the presence of microbial especially bacterial and fungus activities in the affected places. Armpit and groin area are ideal habitats for the growth of the microbial, which generate odorous substances and gasses.

Other reasons for smell in armpit, groin, chin or body hair general include:

  • Body care products
  • Poor hygiene which leads to accumulation of dead skin cells, dirt and body oil
  • Weak immune system
  • Overactive oil glands
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Stress or depression

Cutting it short in armpit, groin or chin can help limit this condition in these areas but remember that, there are some people who will still suffer it even after cutting their hair

Signs and symptoms

When talking about symptoms, we realized that this condition has one major symptom: a gruesome odor that emanates from the hair especially on the scalp or any other body part. Such kind of smell usually vary from one person to the other. Some compares the smell with wet dog, dirty socks, oily smell mixed with vomit or stinky diaper.

It can be very unfortunate to an extent that your hair may be so smelly that sometimes flies may buzz over your head.

The odor may be so strong that co-workers or partners may easily notice it.  The smell can also be transferable to towels, pillows or beddings in general. Some people also may notice this smell right after bathing, it may begin with one scent and later changes to different odors.

I know now you are asking yourself: What can you do to get rid of this malodor? Well, we are about to unmask the effective ways of managing this condition.

You should also be keen on the symptoms of skin conditions on the scalp, they too can lead to a smelly head.

In children

Smelly hair in children is the same smelly scalp syndrome, which we have already discussed. It is a condition whereby a smell emanates from the scalp and hair. This condition can be experienced by many children depending on how the child is exposed to the causative factors. The smell may initiate after the hair is newly washed and then increases throughout the day. Here are some of the causes of  in children:

  • Bacterial Growth
  • Environmental factors i.e. exposure to smoky environment
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Poor Hygiene
  • Skin diseases on the scalp may be due to bacterial and fungal infections
  • Hair care products (if not properly applied)

How to Get Rid Of Smelly Hair? – Natural Home Remedies

Usually, it is a good idea to get this condition intervened by a doctor, who may prescribe smelly scalp treatment such antibacterial shampoos, creams, ointments, gels, conditioners and oral medications (tablets).

Nevertheless, numerous home remedies can be used to combat this embarrassing condition. Illustrated below are some effective home remedies that will work as effective treatment:

A). Baking Soda

This is a widely used remedy. It has the ability to neutralize foul odors and limits illness. To apply this remedy, follow the procedures below:

  • Mix a cup of baking soda in three cups of water
  • Wash your hair using water and then apply the baking soda mixture to it while it is damp
  • Leave the paste for five minutes and then wash it off
  • Repeat the process once in a week

B). Lemon Juice

Lemon juice is just a wonderful for skin conditions as well as a smelly head. After applying it, it is among the products that make it smell good and clean. It enhances shine and smoothness as well as fighting scalp infections.

  • Dilute squeezed lemon juice in a cup of water. Shampoo it and then apply the mixture to your hair and scalp. Leave it there for around six minutes and then rinse it off. Do this twice a week
  • To make lemon juice work more effectively, you can mix it with rosemary or lavender oil for smelly scalp and leave it on overnight. Do this thrice in a week.

Note: Don’t use lemon juice on your hair for a long time, it will lighten it!

C). Apple cider vinegar

This is a natural hair clarifier that can also get rid of buildup substances that can contribute to smelly head and oiliness. It helps in making it shiny, restoring normal its pH and prevent frizzes hence ranked the best smelly hair treatment.

  • Add ½ cup of cider vinegar to 2 cups of water and then mix in three drops of essential oils such as lavender among others. Apply the solution in the hair and leave it there for few minutes.
  • Alternatively, you can rinse it using a solution of one-half tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and one cup of water. Leave it there for two minutes and then rinse it off.

This remedy can be applied after the application of baking soda therapy.

D). Tea tree oil for smelly scalp

This is another home product that can help cure stinky hair. It has an antimicrobial property that can help it heal scalp infections. It is known to get rid of scalp acne and dandruff. It is applied to the following procedures:

  • Begin by diluting a little tea tree oil in water and then apply it on the hair
  • Leave it for about 25 minutes and the shampoo it
  • Add a few drops of tea tree oil to the shampoo and continue shampooing
  • Use this remedy once in a week

E). Tomato Juice

Tomato juice also has the potential to remove offensive odor. In addition, it has the acidic property that aids the balancing of the pH level in the hair.

  • Apply fresh tomato on your hair
  • Leave it to sit there for about 15 minutes and then rinse it out
  • Apply this remedy twice a week
  • Remember tomato is also likely to lighten it just like lemon juice

Other home remedies that can also help get rid of stinky hair include:

  • Neem oil
  • Milk of magnesia
  • Aloe Vera
  • Olive Oil

Don’t forget these measures

  • Use of sulfur-rich products
  • Balanced diet
  • Proper clothing
  • Proper general hygiene
  • Going for regular medical check-ups

If the offensive hair odor persists.

If the smelly hair condition still persists even after applying the above home remedies, it will brainer to see your dermatologist since there may be the need to seek the help of antibiotics and antifungals.

One general advice, good hygienic standards usually plays an important role in general body odor.

List of References