Why Does My Scalp Smell and How Do I Treat It?

Find out how to make the odor go away

A healthy scalp typically has no noticeable smell. If you do notice that you have a smelly scalp, it may be due to an underlying medical condition, such as scalp psoriasis, a fungal infection, poor hygiene, or a buildup of hair products.

Some issues—like poor hygiene—are fairly easy to address on your own. Others—like fungal growth or psoriasis—require medical treatment. 

This article will discuss several medical and non-medical causes of smelly scalp and how to treat them.

Home Remedies for Smelly Scalp

Verywell / Jessica Olah

What Is Smelly Scalp?

Smelly scalp and "smelly scalp syndrome" are not official medical terms. People have described a smelly scalp as having a sour smell, similar to milk or cheese. If you work around chemicals or smoke, your hair and scalp might take on those scents. 

Smelly Scalp: Common Causes

The first step toward getting rid of an unpleasant smell from your scalp is to figure out what’s causing it. That can be tricky since there are a host of conditions that affect your scalp and could make it smell bad, but once you identify the cause, you can begin to treat it effectively.

Medical Causes

Medical causes that may result in a smelly scalp include:

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.


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.


Hyperhidrosis is a medical condition characterized by excessive sweating. (It is not the same as getting sweaty after a tough workout.) When your head gets sweaty and the sweat mixes with the normal bacteria on your scalp, it can cause your scalp to smell.


Hot flashes, night sweats, and hormonal fluctuations experienced during menopause cause excessive sweating, which leads to changes in body odor. Some women may also notice body odor changes when they’re pregnant or menstruating.

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.

A type of yeast called Malassezia occurs naturally on the scalp but can lead to dandruff when it becomes too abundant, causing the scalp to smell.

Non-Medical Causes

Smelly scalp can also be caused by the following non-medical issues,

Improper Hygiene: If you don’t wash your hair properly or often enough, sweat, pollutants, and hair products (including dry shampoo) can all build up on your hair and cause an odor.

Diet: Some people may experience body odor—including a smelly scalp—if they eat certain foods. Common culprits include onions, garlic, and certain spices.

Pollution: If you smoke or spend time around people who do, your clothes and hair may smell like smoke. The same is true if you work around potent-smelling chemicals.

Treating Smelly Scalp

Treating smelly scalp depends on what's causing the odor.

Home Remedies

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

  • Improved hygiene practices: If your scalp smells, a great place to start is by reevaluating your hygiene and hair routine. If you have oily hair or your scalp tends to sweat, you may want to wash your hair more frequently than you have been. Clarifying shampoos can reduce product build-up. Your dermatologist can advise you on how frequently you should wash your hair and which products are best for you.
  • Coconut oil: Applying coconut oil to the scalp has been shown to increase good bacteria and decrease fungi, including those that contribute to dandruff.
  • Aloe vera: Aloe vera has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that might help calm an irritated scalp and reduce smell.
  • Diet changes: Experimenting with eliminating foods and spices that you suspect may be causing scalp odor can help you solve the problem.

Medical Treatments

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.

Shampoos for a Smelly Scalp

  • Dandruff shampoos: Over-the-counter dandruff shampoos contain active ingredients such as zinc pyrithone, coal tar, and ketoconazole that can inhibit the growth of certain fungi on the scalp and reduce dandruff. Using shampoos that contain lemongrass oil can reduce the prevalence of dandruff and may help with unpleasant odors.
  • Psoriasis shampoos: Clobetasol propionate and salicylic acid are among the active ingredients in many psoriasis shampoos. These can reduce swelling, inflammation, and itchiness. 

When you wash your hair, be gentle on your scalp and aggressive scratching or scrubbing.

Other Medications

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.

  • Corticosteroids: Steroids reduce inflammation quickly, so they’re great for treating scalp conditions including psoriasis. They are applied as topical ointments.
  • 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. 

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.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If recommended treatments are not helping reduce scalp odor, or you are experiencing other symptoms—such as a rash, red patches, bleeding—on the scalp or skin, talk to your healthcare professional, who can help identify the problem.


A smelly scalp can be caused by underlying medical conditions, such as psoriasis or a yeast infection, or non-medical causes, including poor hygiene, pollution, and even certain foods. Once the underlying condition is determined, your smelly scalp can be treated appropriately. Better hygiene, dietary changes, and medicated shampoos are all common ways to eliminate odor coming from the scalp.

7 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.
  1. National Psoriasis Foundation. Scalp psoriasis.

  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. 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.

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

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

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.