Why Does My Scalp Smell?

Possible reasons and dermatologist-approved treatments

If your scalp is healthy, you probably don’t pay much attention to it. However, if the skin beneath your hair starts causing you problems, like a smelly scalp, it can suddenly demand a lot of your time and attention.

Many people notice a sour or damp smell coming from their scalp. There’s no one "smelly scalp syndrome" that is to blame for any unpleasant odor you experience on your head. Rather, smelly hair and scalp can be caused by an array of issues.

Some issues—like poor hygiene or improper washing—are fairly easy to address. Others—like fungal growth or psoriasis—might require medical treatment. 

Here’s what you should know about properly caring for your scalp, and why that’s so important. 

touching scalp

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Smelly Scalp: Common Causes

Almost everyone deals with body odor occasionally. You might notice a smell similar to sour milk, cheese, or dirty socks emanating from your scalp.

The first step toward getting rid of an unpleasant smell from your scalp is to figure out what’s causing it. Unfortunately, that can be tricky, since there are a host of conditions that affect your scalp and could make it smell bad. 

Below are some possible causes of a smelly scalp.

Scalp Psoriasis 

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that runs in families. It causes red, scaly patches of dry, flaky skin to appear on the body. Sometimes these patches can have an odor to them, especially as the dead skin builds up.

About half of people with psoriasis experience outbreaks on their scalp, which can lead to an unpleasant odor.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic skin rash that can appear on the scalp and elsewhere on the body. In infants, this rash is known as cradle cap. In older individuals, the rash can lead to flaky, oily scales similar to psoriasis, which may cause an odor.

Dandruff

Similar to seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff is a skin condition that causes itching or flaking.

Compared with scalp psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff is milder and more common, affecting about half of adults. In some people, dandruff may be accompanied by an odor.

Microbiome Imbalance

Like other areas of your skin, your scalp is home to a host of bacteria and fungi. This community is known as your scalp microbiome. When these organisms are in balance, they contribute to the healthy functioning of your scalp. However, when there is too much of one type of bacteria or fungus, it can lead to infection and may contribute to a smelly scalp.

Improper Hygiene

If you don’t wash your hair properly—keeping in mind your specific hair type—sweat, pollutants, and hair products can all build up on your hair and cause an odor. If this happens, it’s nothing to be ashamed about, and can be addressed by learning more about what hair care routine works for you. 

How the Odor Smells

Smell is subjective, so you might have a hard time putting your finger on exactly what your scalp smells like. People have described their smelly caps as having a sour smell, similar to milk or cheese. It might smell downright unpleasant, like dirty laundry or, damn, even mold. If you work around chemicals or smoke, your hair and scalp might take on those scents. 

Proper Hygiene Habits 

If your scalp smells, a great place to start is by reevaluating your hygiene and hair routine. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that White and Asian people wash their hair daily, incorporating a dandruff shampoo once a week if they have dandruff. Black people should shampoo once a week, with a dandruff shampoo.

When you wash, be gentle with your scalp, avoiding aggressive scratching or scrubbing. 

Ingredients and Products to Avoid

Certain products can exacerbate smelly scalp. If you’re prone to scalp irritation, avoid products with the following:

  • Coal tar: This ingredient can help with dandruff, but it can also leave the scalp prone to sunburn.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): Shampoos that contain sulfates can irritate your scalp.
  • Parfum: This artificial fragrance might help mask your scalp smell, but it can cause irritation in the long run.
  • Para-phenylenediamine (PPD): This ingredient found in some dark hair dyes can cause contact dermatitis.

Home Remedies

Experimenting with various home remedies might help you get your smelly scalp under control. Here are three home remedies that might help:

  • Coconut oil: Applying coconut oil to the scalp has been shown to increase good bacteria and decrease fungi, including those that contribute to dandruff.
  • Lemongrass oil: Using shampoos that contain lemongrass oil can reduce the prevalence of dandruff and may help with unpleasant odors.
  • Aloe vera: Aloe vera has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that might help calm an irritated scalp.

Dermatologist Recommendations 

Sometimes home remedies aren’t enough to address a smelly scalp. Particularly if you have an underlying medical condition like scalp psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis, you might benefit from medicated shampoos and topical treatments. These can help heal the skin conditions on your scalp, which can lead to less odor.

Many of these medicated treatments are available over-the-counter, but you can also speak with a dermatologist about stronger options. 

The following medications are commonly used to treat scalp conditions.

  • Zinc pyrithione: The active ingredient in over-the-counter dandruff shampoos, it can inhibit the growth of certain fungi on the scalp and reduce dandruff.
  • Corticosteroids: Steroids reduce inflammation quickly, so they’re great for treating scalp conditions including psoriasis. They are applied as part of a topical ointment.
  • Clobetasol propionate: The active ingredient in many psoriasis shampoos, it reduces swelling, inflammation, and itchiness. 
  • Tazarotene: This is a medication that slows cell regrowth, which can help control skin buildup on the scalp. The ointment is usually applied at night and rinsed out in the morning. 
  • Salicylic acid: This helps the skin shed dead cells to reduce buildup. It is commonly found in psoriasis treatments known as scale softeners. 

A Word From Verywell

No one wants to have a smelly scalp. If you or a close loved one have noticed that your scalp smells like sour milk or stinky feet, it’s time to reevaluate your hygiene routine. You should begin shampooing daily, or weekly if you are Black. If you have a rash, red patches, or flakes that might indicate an underlying condition, be sure to talk with your doctor. With some simple adjustments, your scalp will smell fine in no time. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

What causes fungus on the scalp?

Fungus occurs naturally on the scalp as part of the microbiome, or colony of organisms. Other types of fungus can be transmitted through contact. One type of yeast called Malassezia occurs naturally on the scalp but can lead to dandruff when it becomes too abundant. Many over-the-counter dandruff shampoos slow the growth of Malassezia.

Does dandruff make your scalp smell?

There’s no one cause for a smelly scalp. However, dandruff can indicate that your scalp is unhealthy or that your scalp microbiome is unbalanced. Getting dandruff under control might help address a smelly scalp. 

What helps with scalp psoriasis? 

Medicated shampoos and ointments can help treat scalp psoriasis. You should also talk with your doctor about treating psoriasis overall, including treatments and lifestyle changes that can help keep the condition in check. 

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Seborrheic dermatitis.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to treat dandruff.

  4. Saxena, Rituja. Longitudinal study of the scalp microbiome suggests coconut oil to enrich healthy scalp commensals. Scientific Reports. March 31, 2021. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-86454-1

  5. American Academy of Dermatology Association. 10 reasons your scalp itches and how to get relief.

  6. Chaisripipat. Anti-dandruff hair tonic containing lemongrass (cymbopogon flexuosus) oil. Complementary Medicine Research. 2015. doi:10.1159/000432407

  7. Hekmatpou, Davood. The effect of aloe vera clinical trials on prevention and healing of skin wound: a systematic review. The Iranian Journal of Medical Sciences. January 2019.

  8. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Scalp psoriasis: shampoos, scale softeners and other treatments.