Smelly Hair and Scalp: How to get Rid & Causes

Smelly hair and scalp is a condition characterized by bad odor from the hair and scalp. Your hair may smell like mildew or sour cheese especially when wet. This may be caused by a condition called smelly hair syndrome. This condition can affect anyone despite of his or her age. Here are the causes, cures and home remedies to get rid of bad smell in hair.

What causes smelly hair?

What causes smelly hair

A smelly scalp and hair is caused by bacteria and dirt which affect the scalp and hair cells. Below are the causes of smelly hair and scalp:

1. Smelly hair syndrome

Smelly hair syndrome is a condition that causes hair and scalp of an individual to produce unpleasant odor.

It is characterized by one symptom which is a very unpleasant odor from the scalp and hair. The odor varies from one person to another. Various people have described the odor as sour milk, wet dog, moldy hay, potatoes, an old shoe or dirty socks.

The remedies for smelly hair syndrome include use of sulfur shampoos and antibacterial shampoos. Sulphur dries the oiliness of the hair thereby eliminating the food that bacteria and fungi need to grow while the antibacterial shampoo prevents bacterial and fungi from growing.

2. Scalp fungus

Scalp fungus can make your hair smell bad
Scalp fungus can make your hair smell bad.

Scalp fungus is also known as tinea capitis. It is a condition that causes ringworms to grow on ones scalp. The ringworms live on dampness and warmth especially on people who sweat a lot. The causes include:

  1. Poor scalp hygiene. Sweat and dirt on the scalp act as fungi food. This makes the fungi to grow and multiply on the scalp.
  2. Using public showers and public pools.
  3. Sharing hairbrushes can also cause scalp fungus.

How to get rid of scalp fungus

  1. Taking a balance diet.
  2. Caring for their hair.
  3. Getting timely scalp treatment done.

3. Poor drying after washing

Bacteria grow on moist and warm environments. Poor drying if the hair provides bacteria with a moist environment where it grows and causes the hair to produce a bad odor.

How to Get Rid of Smelly Hair without Washing it

Here is a video from a hair care specialist showing how the what you need and steps eliminate the smell without washing your hair

How to get rid of smelly hair at home

Smelly hair and scalp odor is an embarrassing condition that affects many people. However this condition cannot be covered at once because it has something to do with the hormones. Stress or hormonal changes can trigger the production of excess natural oils from the scalp which heightens the presence of harmless bacteria which cause the odor.

However people have bodies that are chemically different, therefore, by trying the use of natural remedies for this condition have find a natural remedy that works best for an individual. One should not scared because there are many natural remedies for this. Some of the natural remedies include:

1. Tomato Juice remedy

Tomatoes are natural pH balancers that act as cleansers and give you odor-free hair. It also lightens the hair color.

  1. Extract the juice of as many tomatoes as required, depending upon the length of your hair.
  2. Massage it all over your hair.
  3. Leave it on for about 20-30 minutes.
  4. Then wash with a mild shampoo. It can be applied twice a week.

2. Use of Baking Soda

Baking soda helps neutralize fetid smell and also reduces oiliness of hair. It is an effective remedy and therefore it should be used only once in a week.

  1. Blend water and baking soda in 3: 1 proportion.
  2. Douse your hair with water and apply this paste on your wet hair.
  3. Wait for 5 minutes and then rinse.

3. Use of Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is used to restore the normal pH of the hair, averts frizzes and adds luster. It cleanses your hair and eliminates all those elements that may cause smell.

  1. Mix ½ tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in one cup of water.
  2. Then simply rinse your hair with this solution.
  3. Leave it for a minute before washing it out.
  4. Alternatively, mix ½ cup of organic apple cider vinegar to 2 cups of water and add 3 drops of an essential oil such as rose, lavender, or any other.
  5. Spray the solution on your hair.
  6. Then wash off after a few minutes with cold water.

4. Lemon Juice remedy

Lemon juice works incredibly great for both skin and hair. Other than cleansing hair and scalp, it also renders a pleasing fragrance to your hair and makes them smooth and shiny. Moreover, Lemon helps you get rid of dandruff and scalp infections. Get two lemons and squeeze the juice in a cup of water.

  1. Spray this mixture on your hair after rinsing them with a shampoo.
  2. Leave it for a few minutes and then wash off with plain water.
  3. Use this remedy once or twice a week.

If an individual is having a fungal infection on scalp, the following steps should be followed:

  1. Mix the juice of one lemon in one cup of plain yogurt.
  2. Apply it on your hair and wash after 30 minutes.
  3. Do this once in a week.

However, it should be noted that lemon juice lightens the color of hair if it I used for a long period of time.

5. Honey and Cinnamon remedy

Honey and cinnamon possess antibacterial and antifungal properties which keep you from infections.

  1. Just add ½ teaspoon of cinnamon powder to a cup of boiling water.
  2. Let it steep for about 30 minutes.
  3. Then mix 1 teaspoon of honey in it.
  4. Spread this on your scalp and leave it for 45 minutes.
  5. Rinse off with water.
  6. Later on, wash with a shampoo.

Furthermore, you can also drink a mixture of honey and cinnamon powder. Take one tablespoon of honey and a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon powder and blend them properly to make a paste. It will make your tresses stronger. However, honey and cinnamon hair mask may lighten your hair.

6. Olive Oil

Olive oil can be used as a remedy to smelly hair since it has incredible soothing properties which will lessen itchiness and bad odor. Apply olive oil all over the scalp and massage gently before washing your hair.

7. Onion Juice

Onion contains powerful antiseptic and antifungal properties that are ample to dump all your hair woes.

  1. Grind some onions in a juicer.
  2. Gently apply the onion juice on your scalp.
  3. Wait for 30 minutes and then rinse off with a shampoo.

8. Grapefruit Seed Extract

  1. Add 10 drops of grapefruit seed extract in your shampoo and
  2. Massage it on your scalp.
  3. Then, wash your hair as usual.

9. Milk of Magnesia

Milk of magnesia is used to cut down excess oil present in your hair which, generally, adds up to the bad smell.

  1. Directly apply milk of magnesia on your scalp.
  2. Wait for an hour.
  3. Then, shampoo your hair.

10. Orange Juice

Orange juice checks the excess oil present in your hair and sloughs off dandruff. Besides, the peels of Orange deodorize your hair.

  1. Fill a jar with orange peels and pour in apple cider vinegar.
  2. Store this in cupboard for 2 weeks.
  3. Thereafter, strain this infusion and store it in the refrigerator.
  4. Put two tablespoons of this liquid in a 12-16 ounce spray bottle containing water.
  5. Spray it on your hair after washing with a shampoo.
  6. Rinse it off after a few minutes.

It should be noted that, you can also apply orange juice directly on your hair, and then rinse it out after five minutes.

11. Vodka

It is normally used to clean the locks and get rid of smelly hair. It also stimulates hair growth. The following steps should be followed carefully:

  1. Mix one table spoon of vodka in a bottle of water.
  2. Spray this solution after shampooing your strands.
  3. Don’t rinse afterwards. Repeat this once in a week.

12. Garlic Oil

Garlic oil contains a very powerful antiseptic and antifungal compounds. It also contains sulfur which kills the smell producing yeast and bacteria. It is easily available at drug stores or beauty stores. However, it can be prepared at home as well, by heating coconut oil with some garlic cloves.

13. Egg White

Egg white together with yoghurt can be used to kill the smell. The steps below should be followed:

  1. Take yogurt according to the length of your hair.
  2. Add egg yolk to it.
  3. Mix well and spread it on your strands.
  4. Rinse off with cold water after 25 minutes.

Herbal remedies

14. Thyme

Thyme lessens bad smell in hair.

  1. Boil two cups of thyme sprigs in two liters of water for 15 minutes.
  2. Put a lid on it.
  3. After the solution cools down, strain it and use this herbal tea to clean your tresses.

15. Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera heals various scalp problems. It prevents hair loss, conditions your hair, and reduces both dandruff and smell. It can be used once a week.

  1. Apply fresh aloe Vera gel or juice on your hair and scalp after shampooing.
  2. Leave it on for 10-15 minutes and then wash it out.
  3. Alternatively, you can also add one tablespoon of lemon juice and ½ teaspoon of aloe Vera gel to your shampoo.

16. Margosa Oil

Margosa oil can effectively treat scalp infections. The antiseptic properties of margosa oil do away with bad smell from hair. Use this remedy once in a week. It can be added this oil to your shampoo. Or else:

  1. Apply a few drops of this oil on your scalp.
  2. Massage for a few minutes. Leave it overnight.
  3. Wash your hair with a shampoo next morning.
  4. Prepare your own margosa oil at home, by boiling a handful of margosa leaves in water.
  5. Allow it to cool, and then, strain the solution. You can use it once in a week.

17. Lavender Oil

Lavender oil has been proved to be the most effective way for getting rid of smelly hair. It has antifungal and antiseptic properties, it relives scalp from inflammation and itching which mainly cause odor in hair. In order to use it:

  1. Wash your hair with a sulfate-free shampoo.
  2. Dry them with a clean towel and apply 5-10 drops of lavender oil.

18. Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil cleanses the stinky hair naturally, and antimicrobial properties of tea tree oil helps cure the scalp infections and evades microbial growth.  This oil will also reduce dandruff and scalp acne.

  1. Mix a few drops of tea tree oil in some water and apply it on your scalp.
  2. After 20 to 30 minutes, shampoo your hair.
  3. Alternatively, you can add a few drops of tea tree oil to your shampoo.
  4. Another option is to mix a little tea tree oil with olive oil or jojoba oil, and apply it on your scalp daily.
Leaving your scalp wet for a long time can make it smell
Leaving your scalp wet for a long time can make it smell

Smelly pubic hair

Smelly pubic hair is a condition where the hairs around a person’s genitals produce a bad odor. The causes may include the following:

  1. Poor hygiene. It is the major reason for smelly pubic hair. Because pubic hair are not occasionally exposed to air, they are prone to sweat and dirt. Failure to wash off the dirt and sweat make the hairs to smell.
  2. Bacteria. It grows on pubic hair as a result of dirt and sweat which act as its food. Bacteria in a woman’s pubic hair can cause vaginal discharge. This condition is called vaginosis.
  3. Genital Infections. They make yeast to grow around the pubic hairs. This might cause an increase or change in the body odor emanating from the pubic area. Such an infection might develop in the skin folds around the genital region, causing a red, painful rash. Women are also susceptible to vaginal yeast infections. Additionally, bacterial or parasitic vaginal infections can develop and cause an increase or change pubic hair odor.

Remedies for smelly pubic hair

Although pubic hair odor cannot be fully done away with, it can be reduced by use of the following:

  1. Shaving- keeping the hairs short helps to prevent sweat and dirt from sticking on the hairs. This reduces the odor significantly.
  2. Wearing clean underwear– dirty underwear spreads bacteria and dirt to the pubic hairs. Wearing clean underwear keeps the pubic hairs free from dirt and bacteria.
  3. Using creams– creams help to reduce the effect of sticky sweat around the pubic hairs. This prevents bacteria from growing therefore reducing the bad odor.

Smelly armpit hair

This is a condition where the hairs at the armpit have a bad odor. Smelly armpit hairs are mostly caused by dirt and bacteria. Below are some of other possible causes.

  1. Apocrine– is a type of bromhidrosis that causes corynebacterium to grow on the armpit hairs. The bacteria are responsible for the bad odor due to the fatty acids it produces. It occurs mostly at puberty.
  2. Diet– Foods rich in protein content cause armpit hair odor due to the fatty acids they produce at the armpit. The foods include: fish and red meat.
  3. Emotional stress– during stressful circumstances fatty sweat is secreted into the gland tubule. As contraction of the tubule occurs, sweat is pushed to the skin surface around the armpit. Bacteria break down the sweat producing apocrine sweat which causes bad odor.

Other causes of smelly armpit hairs include: diabetes, liver and kidney diseases and alcoholism.

How to get rid of smelly armpit hairs

Smelly armpit hairs can be treated and managed using home available products and manufactured products.

  1. Maintaining armpit hygiene.

The odor from armpit hairs is as a result of growth of bacteria in warm and moist armpit. Showering at least twice a day will keep the armpit clean and free from the bacteria. Using warm water when showering will help because warm water kills the bacteria on the skin.

  1. Trim armpit hair

Bacteria thrive most in moist, dark and hairy places. Trimming the hairs will deprive bacteria the comfortable environment therefore preventing bad odor from the hairs.

  1. Use of deodorants

 Deodorants turn the armpit environment to acidic. Because bacteria cannot grow in an acidic place, the armpit hairs will be free from it and bad odor.

  1. Wear proper clothing

Use clothes made from cotton and wool because they allow for free circulation of air around the armpit thus preventing bad odor by preventing moisture from accumulating at the armpit.

Home remedies for smelly armpit hairs

Home remedies for smelly armpit hairs include:

  1. Apple cider vinegar– it has antibacterial properties therefore prevents bacteria that causes bad odor from growing around the armpit hairs. It is applied directly to the armpit hairs using a cotton ball.
  2. Alcohol– alcohol can be used to prevent underarm perspiration. It closes the pores and evaporates easily reducing the armpit hair odor. Add some alcohol in a mug of water and use it to rinse your armpit.
  3. Hydrogen peroxide– it kills the bacterium that causes the bad odor from armpit hairs. Add a teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide to a cup of water, stir the solution well and apply it under your arms using a clean washcloth.

What does a smelly scalp smell like?

Most people usually compare the smell to sweat, weed, wet dog, cheese or mildew. But in most cases, the smelly scalp normally produce a smell that smells like mildew or at time like a sour like cheese. However, the smell varies from person to person and the odor is so strong that other people can easily notice it.

Hair smelling like mildew

It is a very funky smell that emanates from molded hair. Mold spores are naturally found in the air and they are invisible to the naked eye. Dark damp places are havens for these spores. Mildew comes from moisture that is trapped inside your hair shaft and doesn’t completely dry.

It should be noted that, this condition is very hectic and stubborn since it can keep on recurring after a short period of treatment.

Scalp smells sour like cheese

This condition is mostly caused by smelly hair syndrome which usually manifests itself in very bad odor that originates from the hair and the scalp. The smell is usually compared to sour milk, wet dog, moldy hay, potatoes, an old shoe or dirty socks, a jacket that’s never been to the dry cleaner, and an oily smell mixed with vomit.

Sources and references

  1. Home Remedy Shop: 18 Home Remedies for Getting Rid of Smelly Hair
  2. COM: Smelly Scalp Problems
  3. Cure Joy: How to Get Rid Of Smelly Hair


  1. I think I’ve found a cure for smelly hair syndrome, (for some people, at least)!
    For years I couldn’t figure out why my hair – not my scalp – which is fine – smelled like vomit or stinky cheese. I washed it daily with sulfate-free shampoo, conditioned it, tried and spent a small fortune on remedies (both natural and over the counter).

    Nothing worked !!! … and then I found something that DID, after reading an online post that said ‘sulfate-free’ shampoo isn’t for everyone!

    My cure involves using a shampoo that contains ‘ammonium lauryl sulfate’, (I used a bottle of cheap Palmolive shampoo) followed by a good hair conditioner of choice. It sounds rdiculously cheap and easy but I haven’t had smelly hair since using this combination.

    I hope this post helps save some readers from unnecessary stress and expense.

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