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What Causes a Smelly Scalp?

Updated February 21, 2017

A smelly scalp or hair that has an unpleasant odour can be an embarrassing problem. When you notice that your scalp or hair has a bad smell, your first instinct is to eliminate the smell. However, a smelly scalp is a common side effect of a larger problem and is caused primarily by bacteria and fungus.

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If you have a smelly scalp but don't know why, see your dermatologist for a diagnosis and treatment options.


Bacteria are commonly found both inside and outside your body. When bacteria are balanced--meaning you have neither too much nor too little--they're virtually unnoticeable. However, a smelly scalp is thought to be caused by an overgrowth of naturally occurring bacteria.

If your smelly scalp is caused by bacteria, you may be able to treat it with an antibacterial or antimicrobial shampoo.


Scalp fungus is essentially a scalp infection commonly linked to the tinea fungus, which is also a common cause of athlete's foot. Tinea thrive in warm, moist areas. Fungal scalp infections may be linked to minor skin or scalp injuries, poor hygiene, or continually moist skin. Fungus can also be transferred from person to person on hats, hairbrushes, combs, or hair clips. Medicated shampoos and antifungal products can clear up a fungal scalp infection.

Oily Hair

Smelly scalp has been repeatedly linked with unusually oily hair. People with extremely oily hair have reported it as having an unusual odour between washings. If smelly scalp is caused by naturally oily hair, treat it with shampoos and other products for drying out oily hair.

Yeast-heavy Diet

Some homeopathic beauty practitioners believe that consuming too much yeast can cause smelly scalp; however, to our knowledge, little evidence exists to support this. If you have a smelly scalp, you may benefit from limiting yeast in your diet for several weeks to see if the condition improves.

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About the Author

Jen Davis has been writing since 2004. She has served as a newspaper reporter and her freelance articles have appeared in magazines such as "Horses Incorporated," "The Paisley Pony" and "Alabama Living." Davis earned her Bachelor of Arts in communication with a concentration in journalism from Berry College in Rome, Ga.

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