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.

Overview

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.

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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:

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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.

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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).

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.

Medically Reviewed

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

Learn more about our editorial process.

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