Smelly Scalp Causes

  • Noor Shahid BDS, National University of Medical Sciences Pakistan

A smelly scalp can be more than just a nuisance – it can have a profound impact on our emotional and psychological well-being. The insecurity and discomfort it can induce are not to be underestimated, affecting our confidence in social interactions, at work, and even in our relationships. 

Understanding the causes of a smelly scalp is the first step in addressing this common concern. By delving into the root of the issue, we equip ourselves with the knowledge needed to restore not only the health of our scalp but also our confidence and self-assuredness.

 There are many reasons why your head has an unpleasant odour; it can be a sign of various medical conditions, or it can also be a consequence of your hair care practices and sometimes, it can be the environmental factors that may be contributing to your scalp odour. 

The common causes of a smelly scalp are multifaceted and often intertwined. In the following sections, we'll dive deeper into these causes, offering a comprehensive understanding that will empower you to take effective steps in addressing and preventing scalp odour. 

What causes a smelly scalp?

 Scalp odour occurs when there is a build-up of sebum and dead cells on the scalp. This build-up provides a fostering environment that allows bacterial growth. The naturally occurring bacteria break down these sebum lipids giving rise to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which results in a cheese-like odour from your scalp.1

 However, it is important to note that many various factors may contribute to this condition; some common causes of smelly scalp are as follows:

Seborrheic dermatitis or dandruff

Dandruff is a condition primarily limited to the scalp, characterised by itchy, flaky skin without any visible signs of inflammation. On the other hand, seborrheic dermatitis (SD) can affect not only the scalp but also other oily areas of the body and is associated with itchy, flaky skin along with inflammation.

 This condition also occurs in babies, known as Cradle caps.

It is a multifactorial condition that may either be caused by hyperactive sebum glands, or an overgrowth of a yeast species known as Malassezia. This fungal colonisation and build-up of sebum and dead cells on your scalp may be the reason why your scalp stinks.

Bacterial & fungal infection of the scalp

The high density of hair follicles and increased rate of sebum in the scalp forms a dark and warm environment that is favourable for the growth of bacterial and yeast microorganisms. 

Running dirty fingers through your hair, using combs, hats, and other styling equipment introduces microorganisms to your scalp, which then grow and multiply resulting in a scalp infection.3

These infections include Folliculitis, Scalp ringworm (Tinea capitis), Seborrheic Dermatitis & Impetigo

 It is advised that a dermatologist or a healthcare professional must be consulted for these conditions and an appropriate treatment plan must be taken into action.

Poor scalp hygiene

When it comes to scalp hygiene, infrequent or inadequate washing of the hair and scalp can be a significant cause of unpleasant odours. Inadequate washing typically means not thoroughly cleansing the scalp during your hair care routine or going extended periods without using a shampoo. 

Over time, natural oils, sweat, dead skin cells, and environmental impurities can accumulate on the scalp. This buildup provides an ideal environment for odour-producing bacteria to thrive, resulting in an unpleasant smell.

Residue from hair products

Excess use of hair styling products like gels, sprays, conditioner, and dry shampoos followed by improper cleaning of your scalp can lead to a build-up that can trap bacteria and other pollutants which may cause your scalp to have an unpleasant odour.4


Hyperhidrosis is a disorder in which a person sweats excessively and is not related to heat or exercise. This excess sweat and sebum production in the scalp combined with bacterial activity may lead to the production of an unpleasant odour in the affected individuals. 

Environmental factors

 Exposure to air pollution, including dust and particulate matter, can lead to the accumulation of these pollutants on your scalp. Over time, this buildup can interact with sweat and natural oils, creating an environment where odour-producing bacteria thrive.

Diet and lifestyle factors

Studies suggest that diet and lifestyle factors can have an impact on your scalp and body odour. 5  The type of food you consume can affect how you smell. For example, if you eat sulphur-rich food like onions, garlic, cabbage, broccoli, or red meat, chances are that your sweat might give off an unpleasant smell.

Intrinsic factors

Certain intrinsic factors like hormonal changes, especially in women, can also be a factor contributing to changes in body odour and as a result, changes in scalp odour. 

Moreover, genetic factors may also play a role. Some individuals naturally have more active sebaceous and sweat glands, which makes them more prone to having a smelly scalp.

Prevention and solutions

Rest assured, there are effective treatments and solutions available to address a smelly scalp. With the right approach, which may include proper scalp hygiene, suitable hair care products, and, if necessary, consultation with a healthcare professional, you can successfully manage and overcome this concern. 

Don't worry, you're not alone in dealing with this, and there is a path to a fresher and more confident you.

Proper scalp hygiene 

 Maintaining proper scalp hygiene, including regular cleansing and exfoliation, can help minimise the accumulation of sebum and the resulting odour. Consult a dermatologist or a doctor who can advise you on a shampoo or scalp cleaner that's suitable for your hair.4

Change your hair washing routine and limit the use of styling products that may be causing the odour. 

Natural remedies and treatments

Several products are available to effectively remove scalp build-up and eradicate the unpleasant odour that often accompanies it. These options encompass over-the-counter medicated shampoos, and serums, as well as certain cosmeceutical hair sprays and mists.

Furthermore, natural ingredients can also aid in thoroughly cleansing your scalp and quelling the foul odour when incorporated into a homemade hair mask. These do-it-yourself masks have a long history of traditional use for addressing various hair and scalp issues.

Medical treatments 

 In cases where a smelly scalp persists despite other efforts, or if it's associated with an underlying medical condition, consulting a healthcare professional or dermatologist is advisable. 

They can provide medical treatments, such as prescription shampoos, antifungal agents, or steroids, to address the issue effectively. 

  • Dandruff/ Seborrheic Dermatitis: The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) suggests the use of dandruff shampoos and scalp treatments to get rid of dandruff. If you have severe Seborrheic Dermatitis, then your physician might prescribe you a shampoo or a topical medication that contains steroids to reduce the inflammation.

It's essential to follow the washing instructions your dermatologist suggests to get the results.

  • Scalp infections: Infections of the scalp require prescription medicines, topical or taken by mouth depending on the severity of your condition. Antifungals and steroids may be prescribed by your dermatologist in the form of tablets, capsules, or topical solutions often along with an antifungal shampoo.6
  • Hyperhidrosis: According to The British Association of Dermatologists, you should see a professional dermatologist who might prescribe you topical solutions or medicines to take orally to control your condition. 

Glycopyrrolate, an anticholinergic drug, topically can reduce sweating in areas such as the scalp, forehead, and armpits.


Having a smelly scalp can indeed be a bothersome situation but it’s not something that can’t be managed. It’s essential to observe and figure out what might be causing it so that you can effectively manage it. 

It can be due to something as simple as your scalp hygiene practices or the products you’re using, the environment you're living in, or the foods you consume to something complicated as an underlying medical condition. 

 methods can be approached to manage this condition from changing shampoos, trying natural remedies, and consulting with a dermatologist for expert opinion.


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  • Grimalt R. A practical guide to scalp disorders. Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings [Internet]. 2007 Dec [cited 2023 Nov 3];12(2):10–4. Available from:
  • Cleveland Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2023 Nov 3]. Smelly scalp: causes, shampoos & at-home treatments. Available from:
  • Zuniga A, Stevenson RJ, Mahmut MK, Stephen ID. Diet quality and the attractiveness of male body odor. Evolution and Human Behavior [Internet]. 2017;38(1):136–43. Available from:
  • Ringworm: Diagnosis and treatment [Internet]. [cited 2023 Nov 3]. Available from:
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Noor Shahid

BDS, National University of Medical Sciences Pakistan

Dr. Noor Dosondi, a passionate dentist and emerging medical writer, embodies the pursuit of excellence in the field of healthcare. With several years of experience in dental practice, she has garnered a reputation for her commitment to patient care and her dedication to staying on the cutting edge of dental innovations. Her journey towards becoming a top-tier dentist began at CMH Medical College, where she graduated as the valedictorian of her class, earning her the title of the session topper.

Dr. Noor Dosondi brings her invaluable clinical experience to her role as a medical writer, where she strives to communicate complex medical concepts in a clear and accessible manner. Her innate curiosity and commitment to evidence-based dentistry empower her to produce informative content that educates and empowers readers to take charge of their oral health.

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