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What makes your hair smell good?

Smelly Scalp

A smelly scalp can develop because of head or hair care or underlying health conditions. It can often be treated at home or by a healthcare provider.

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What is smelly scalp?

Smelly scalp, also called smelly hair syndrome, is when the skin on top of your head has an unpleasant scent. The smell can also linger in your hair. Stinky scalp can be a symptom of several medical conditions. It can also result from the way you take care of your hair.

You can often treat a smelly scalp at home. You may need to visit your healthcare provider if you have a stinky scalp that won’t go away.

Possible Causes

What causes smelly scalp?

The most common cause of smelly scalp is a buildup of skin cells, sweat and sebum (body oils). Smelly scalp can also result from:

  • Bacteria: The mix of bacteria and sweat on your scalp can cause an unpleasant odor.
  • Fungus: Fungus on your skin can lead to dandruff and a smelly scalp.
  • Yeast: Too much yeast on your scalp can cause conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis along with a bad scent.

What medical conditions cause smelly scalp?

Medical conditions that may cause your scalp to smell include:

  • Dandruff (seborrheic dermatitis).
  • Fungal infections on your scalp.
  • Hormonal changes.
  • Hyperhidrosis, when excess sweating combines with bacteria on your scalp.
  • Psoriasis.

What nonmedical conditions cause smelly scalp?

Nonmedical conditions that may cause your scalp to smell include:

  • Diet: Certain foods you eat may affect how your scalp and body smell.
  • Poor hygiene: Habits like not washing your hair enough can lead to a stinky scalp.
  • Pollution: Particles from the environment can attach to your hair, creating a bad smell.
  • Residue from hair products: Excess shampoo (including dry shampoo), conditioner and styling products may build up on your scalp. The buildup can trap bacteria, which creates yeast that may have an unpleasant scent.
  • Sweating: Sweat can lead to smelly scalp and other types of body odor. But you can have a smelly scalp without body odor and vice versa.

Care and Treatment

How to get rid of smelly scalp

You can try the following at-home fixes for scalp odor:

  • Change your hair care products: Try “clarifying” shampoo designed to prevent the buildup of hair products. Look for ingredients such as apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil. You may also have good results from eliminating hair products for a time, so your scalp can recover.
  • Track your diet: See if cutting out certain foods causes your scalp to smell less. Keep a diary of what you eat each day along with whether you have a smelly scalp. Work foods back into your diet and see if the smell returns.
  • Wash your hair more or less often: Look for a balance between keeping your hair clean and removing excess oils.

Don’t try any drastic treatments at home. Instead, talk to a healthcare provider first. Though you may feel embarrassed, remember that your provider has handled situations like yours before and can provide guidance.

How is smelly scalp treated?

If home treatments don’t work, see a healthcare provider. Visit your primary care provider or a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin and hair issues.

Treatment for your smelly scalp will depend on what causes it. Causes and their treatments include:

  • Bacteria buildup: Medicated shampoos.
  • Dandruff and scalp psoriasis: Antifungal medications, antifungal creams and medicated shampoos.
  • Fungus: Antifungal creams and antifungal medications.
  • Hormonal changes: Topical and oral medications.
  • Hyperhidrosis: Topical and oral medications, including anticholinergic drugs (which block message transmission in the nervous system), antidepressants and beta-blockers.
  • Pollution: Medicated shampoos.
  • Yeast infection: Topical antifungals, calcineurin inhibitors (drugs to suppress your immune system) and corticosteroids (drugs that reduce inflammation).
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When to Call the Doctor

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Contact a healthcare provider if:

  • Treatments at home don’t relieve your smelly scalp.
  • You experience other symptoms besides smelly scalp.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Having a smelly scalp can be unpleasant and embarrassing. But don’t be ashamed of this common condition. Simple lifestyle changes can often make your scalp smell better. If you still have odor issues, your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to help treat your smelly scalp.


Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/20/2023.


  • American Academy of Dermatology Association. Psoriasis. ( Accessed 2/20/2023.
  • American Academy of Dermatology Association. Seborrheic Dermatitis. ( Accessed 2/20/2023.
  • Borda LJ, Wikramanayake TC. Seborrheic Dermatitis and Dandruff: A Comprehensive Review. ( J Clin Investig Dermatol. 2015 Dec;3(2):10.13188/2373-1044.1000019. Accessed 2/20/2023.
  • Grymowicz M, Rudnicka E, Podfigurna A, et al. Hormonal Effects on Hair Follicles. ( Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Aug;21(15):5342. Accessed 2/20/2023.
  • Trüeb RM, Henry JP, David MG, Schwartz JR. Scalp Condition Impacts Hair Growth and Retention via Oxidative Stress. ( Int J Trichology. 2018 Nov-Dec;10(6):262-270. Accessed 2/20/2023.

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What makes your hair smell good?

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Keep Your Hair Smelling Fresh All Day

You don’t need us to tell you that your hair holds onto smells exceptionally well—a night spent by a bonfire or making a meal in your kitchen will make that abundantly clear. But for some reason, it doesn’t work that way for all situations. After stepping out of the shower (or the hair salon), your hair might smell fantastic, but it can be tricky to maintain that clean hair smell all day long, let alone between washes.

Here, you’ll learn what can cause your hair to lose its fresh-from-the-shower smell. We’ll also offer advice on how to make your hair smell good, how often you should lather up for clean-smelling strands, and provide recommendations on Kiehl’s best-smelling shampoos and conditioners to add to your routine.

Why Does Hair Lose Its Fresh Smell?

You’ve just washed your hair, and a few short hours later, it’s already lost its clean scent. We’ve been there, and we can confirm that it’s a bit exasperating (to say the least). There are a few things that can cause your shampoo’s fresh fragrance to dissipate quicker than you’d hoped. Just like the skin on your body, your scalp constantly secretes sweat and oil. While this is completely normal, an accumulation of sweat and oil can cause fragrances—like the ones that make your haircare products smell so good—to fade away. If you anticipate sweating more than usual, hold off on using your scented shampoo and conditioner until after your workout to help keep your hair smelling nice.

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How Often Should You Wash Your Hair?

Just like your skincare routine, haircare should be personalized for your unique needs. While some people need to lather up daily, for example, many benefit from a less frequent hair washing schedule. How often you should wash your hair depends on a few different factors, including your age. Generally speaking, your skin and scalp’s oil glands tend to be most active when you’re young. As you age, your skin becomes drier—and the less oily your scalp is, the longer you can go between washes.

Your hair’s length also plays a role in how frequently you need to shampoo. If you have long hair, it can take a while for the oils from your scalp to reach the ends of your hair, allowing you to stretch out the time between washes. Those with short hair, on the other hand, may find that their hair appears greasy quicker and may therefore prefer to shampoo every day. A good way to tell if your schedule is working for you is by how your scalp feels. If you’re experiencing frequent dryness and irritation, you may be washing your hair too frequently. Over time, over-washing your hair can make your strands dry and brittle and contribute to breakage.

Our Best Scented Hair Products For Great-Smelling Strands

Having great-smelling hair starts with the products that you use. At Kiehl’s, we offer a range of hair products that leave your hair smelling amazing while giving hair the nourishment it needs. Find our favorites below.

1. Smoothing Oil-Infused Leave-In Concentrate

Lock in a gorgeous woodsy fragrance with Smoothing Oil-Infused Leave-In Concentrate. This lightweight leave-in treatment nourishes and smoothes hair without weighing it down. It’s also demonstrated to calm frizz. Apply a small amount of the concentrate to damp hair and distribute it with a comb or your fingers, then style your strands as usual. You can also apply it sparingly to dry hair to boost shine and softness.

2. Grooming Solutions Nourishing Shampoo + Conditioner

Grooming Solutions Nourishing Shampoo + Conditioner is a men’s two-in-one shampoo and conditioner for all hair types. The refreshing formula gently cleanses and removes buildup from your hair and beard, leaving your hair looking soft and healthy. Additionally, the men’s haircare staple is formulated with an aromatic blend of essential oils (including cedarwood, sandalwood, and eucalyptus oils) that impart your mane with an earthy, woodsy fragrance. Incorporate this shampoo and conditioner into your grooming routine and explore more of Kiehl’s Grooming Solutions Collection.

3. Body Fuel Wash

Speed up your morning routine with Body Fuel Wash, a multitasking must-have ideal for busy days. This men’s hair and body cleanser with caffeine and menthol gently removes excess oil, sweat, and impurities. The energizing formula leaves your skin and hair feeling invigorated and refreshed, while the uplifting menthol scent will help keep your strands smelling fresh throughout the day.

4 Tips For Keeping Great Smelling Hair

If you love the smell of your shampoo and conditioner, it’s only natural to want that scent to stick around all day. Here are four tips to help keep your strands smelling their best as the day goes on.

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1. Clean Your Hair Supplies

Toothbrushes get replaced once a month, makeup brushes get cleaned weekly—your haircare tools should get the same treatment. Once a month or so, give your hair brushes and combs a good, thorough cleaning to help ensure you’re not spreading old sweat and grime throughout your freshly-washed hair. It’s a good idea to wipe down your curling wands and flat irons, too.

2. Start Your Day With Fresh Hair

Nighttime showers can be relaxing, but it’s unlikely your shampoo’s fragrance will hold up overnight. To keep your hair smelling its best throughout the day, stick to morning showers or refresh second-day strands with a spritz of water and a little bit of leave-in conditioner.

3. Pay Attention To Your Scalp

Scalp care is skincare, so you should be treating your scalp the same as the other skin on your body. This means regular exfoliation is a must; it can help remove the dead skin and leftover sweat, as well as any product buildup that may be sullying the scent of your favorite shampoo. Use Amino Acid Scalp-Detoxifying Treatment Scrub in place of shampoo once weekly for a clean, fresh-feeling scalp.

4. Try a Perfume

Designated hair perfumes are meant to give your locks an amazing scent that lasts. Simply spray and enjoy. Aside from these hair fragrances, if your haircare products aren’t super fragrant, your regular perfume can also step up. Our classic Musk Eau de Toilette Spray starts off with fresh citrus notes and dries to a warm, musky aroma with hints of tonka nut and white patchouli. Spritz a bit of the fragrance behind your ears to keep your mane smelling amazing all day long.

Why Does Your Hair Smell And How To Get Rid Of It?

Prutha B. Nawale

The team at ‘Skinkraft blogs’ performs extensive research and sources facts from in-house doctors to give out accurate, scientific and useful information. We do not encourage plagiarism from our writers. Every blog on Skinkraft is fact-checked by our team of dermatologists and formulators.

All referenced studies and research papers are from reputable academic associations.

All statistics and facts used in a blog link to the original source.

All content related to drugs, procedures, treatments, ingredients, and side effects are clearly indicated to the reader.

The ultimate goal of our blogs is to make the reader well aware of skin and hair health, and enable them to take informed decisions.

Why Does Your Hair Smell And How To Get Rid Of It?

Bad hair days — we all go through it. But what about smelly hair days? We’ve all been there too, and wondered if we’ll put off everyone around us with the hair smell.

You are doing everything right, but still emitting hair odors? Then it is time to rethink your hair care to avoid smelly hair, which is one of the most annoying hair woes. Let’s look at what you can do.


  • What Does Hair Actually Smell Like?
  • Why Does My Hair Smell?
  • How Do I Get Rid Of Smelly Hair?
  • Tips To Avoid Smelly Hair & Scalp
  • Why Does My Hair Smell Bad Even After I Wash It?

What Does Hair Actually Smell Like?

Normally, your hair has either no smell or smells like the fragrances in your hair care products — like the shampoo or conditioner you just used. Run your fingers along your scalp a few times and then smell your fingertips. If you notice any unusual, bad, or pungent smell, you have a smelly scalp and hair.

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Why Does My Hair Smell?

The main reasons for a smelly scalp and hair are excess oil (sebum), yeast and dead skin cells on your scalp. Following are all the causes that lead to these kinds of buildups on the scalp:

1. Not Washing Enough

Not shampooing enough can build up oils (sebum) on your scalp and lead to a smell. If you have an oily scalp or super thin hair, consider washing your hair with a mild shampoo every two days to keep the sebum levels in check.


Too much of anything is bad. Overwashing your hair can strip off the natural oils from your scalp due to the chemicals in your shampoo. So wash gently too.

2. Sweaty Hair

Sweat is a common cause of smelly hair. If you are working out a lot and not washing your hair regularly, it can build up a sweat on the scalp.

3. Pollution

The pollutants in the air can get deposited on your scalp and cause odors. They mix up with the oils and sebum on your scalp to emit pungent smells.

4. Hormonal Imbalances And Stress

Stress can disrupt normal hormonal functions and can lead to excess oil production and scalp irritation.

5. Diet

The skin on your scalp too reacts to foods containing strong odors. Foods like onion and garlic contain oils that can be excreted via the skin on your scalp.

6. Wearing Hats/Scarfs For Too Long

This one’s tricky. While it is important to cover your hair with a hat or scarf while you are out in the sun and polluted environment, it can be bad too when you use it for a very long time. Leaving your hat on your hair for prolonged periods can increase sweat on your scalp and hair, causing it to smell.

7. Hair Masks

We love pampering our hair with hair masks every now and then. Don’t we? But hair masks containing ingredients like onion or egg can leave a bad odor even after washing the hair.

8. Skin Conditions

Skin conditions like dandruff can sometimes lead to a smelly scalp and hair. Dandruff is caused due to build up of dead skin cells that fall off as white flakes. An irritated scalp due to dandruff is a breeding ground for bacteria and hence, odor.

9. Washing Hair With Very Hot Water

Hot water strips off the natural oils from your hair and disturbs the oil balance. Once the oil is removed, it signals the skin to make more oil. And more oil means smelly scalp.

10. Chemical Hair Products

The residue from chemical hair care products mess with the oil balance in your scalp and result in an unpleasant odor. Choose your shampoos, conditioners, serums and masks that contain gentle ingredients.

How Do I Get Rid Of Smelly Hair?

1. Hair Care Routine

Understand your hair to use hair care products that suit your hair type. Wash, condition, detangle, protect and style your hair. Choose hair care ingredients that address your individual hair concerns, if any. Establish a hair washing schedule after knowing your hair type and scalp type.

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2. Medicated Shampoos/Prescribed Hair Products

If yeast or bacteria is causing a smelly scalp or smelly hair, you should turn to anti-fungal hair care products. Talk to your doctor about such products and incorporate them into your hair care routine. You have degreasing shampoos, residue removing ones and sulfur or selenium sulfide shampoos for dandruff.

3. Natural Methods

Home remedies for smelly hair do not hold any scientific evidence, but people consider them to be effective. Here are some of your options:

A. Lemon Juice

The words lemon and fresh usually go hand in hand. Lemon is anti-microbial and leaves a fresh citrusy smell on your scalp. Mix 2 teaspoons of lemon juice with a cup of warm water. After hair wash, pour this mixture on your scalp and hair. Rinse well with cold water after a few minutes.

B. Essential Oils

Mix a few drops of essential oil like tea tree oil with a carrier oil like almond or jojoba oil and apply on your scalp and hair. Leave on for 30 minutes and wash with a gentle shampoo. Tea tree oil is antimicrobial and leaves a pleasant smell on your scalp. You can try the same method with neem oil — another wonderful essential oil.

C. Apple Cider Vinegar

Mix 2-3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with 2 cups of water. After thoroughly washing your hair, rinse your hair with this vinegar mix. It not only combats bacteria on your scalp but also gives a shiny appearance to your hair.

Tips To Avoid Smelly Hair & Scalp

  • Alcohol
  • Use sulfate-free shampoos. Sulfates are used for lathering purposes in the shampoos but can cause irritation to the skin.
  • Treat dandruff with an anti-dandruff shampoo.
  • Wear a hat or scarf to protect your hair from sun damage and pollution.
  • Resist the urge to scratch your scalp as it only leads to more oil production.
  • Follow a good diet and avoid any pungent smelling foods in your diet.
  • Manage stress with meditation, yoga, or any other calming workouts.

Why Does My Hair Smell Bad Even After I Wash It?

If your hair smells bad within a few hours of washing well, you might be having ‘smelly hair syndrome’. This is a condition that leaves a terrible odor from the scalp. The smell is so strong that you can’t help but notice. Medicated shampoos and anti-fungal hair care products can help. Consult your doctor for better treatment methods.

Wrapping Up

Now you know that frequent hair washing and avoiding sweat accumulation on the scalp can fight scalp odour in most cases. If the smell is recurring or chronic despite all your hair care efforts, take out the time to visit a dermatologist’s office.

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