Why does my scalp sometimes smell and what can I do about it?
The hair experts shed insights on why this happens and advice on how to tackle this issue. And guess what? It’s more than just washing your hair more often to get rid of the odour.
When it comes to body parts that might not always smell as pleasant, it’s easy to think that it would be the underarms or feet. But did you ever stop to think your scalp could be smellier than you realise? Chances are, you might not even know if it does smell unless someone has mentioned it to you.
According to Dr Liew Hui Min, consultant dermatologist at HM Liew Skin & Laser Clinic, the most common cause of our scalp smelling bad is due to the “build-up of congested skin on the hair follicles, as well as the build-up of sebum, mixed with sweat”.
In addition, Shawn Chia, director at Chez Vous: Private Space, added that slightly less common reasons for our scalp smelling bad are due to the presence of bacteria, yeast (or fungus) and certain types of medication.
Dr Liew explained that this can be due to skin conditions, such as eczema, folliculitis (also known as acne) and even psoriasis. With eczema or other forms of contact dermatitis, the “itchy inflammatory broken skin barrier on the scalp (can) lead to bacterial infection, presented as weepy, malodorous and itchy excoriated scalp”.
Meanwhile, psoriasis can also be regarded as a severe form of dandruff, and without regular washing, it can result in the trapped sebum forming a thick rash on the surface that leads to an odour being emitted, Dr Liew added.
And interestingly, Dr Angeline Yong, consultant dermatologist at Angeline Yong Dermatology, also added that certain foods can affect how our scalp smells as well. Consuming excessive foods that have strong odours like “certain meats, onion and garlic for example, which contain oils can (also) be excreted via the scalp skin,” she said.
6 DOS AND DON’TS TO KEEP SCALP AND HAIR SMELLING FRESH
1. Don't over-wash your scalp and hair
While washing your hair ensures that the accumulation of dirt, sweat and bacteria are cleared – both Drs Liew and Yong said that once a day is necessary especially in Singapore’s humid weather – over-washing can do more harm than good.
So though you might be tempted to wash your hair twice a day, Dr Yong cautioned against it. “Over-washing is generally not recommended as this could unnecessarily strip the scalp of its natural oils and moisture level, hence washing once a day is usually good enough.”
Chia agreed, and added a dry and imbalanced scalp can lead to it smelling foul as well. “Dehydration can cause our scalp to overcompensate by producing more sebum. As much as washing is important, hydrating our scalp is equally important too.”
2. Blow-dry your hair after washing
Let’s face it: Heading out with a head of wet hair isn’t the best look. But we get it, sometimes you just don’t have time to dry your hair properly after wash because you’re late for work.
You might want to rethink this because it’s one of the reasons why your hair and scalp isn’t smelling as fresh as you would like it to. According to Chia, damp hair can cause your scalp to produce more sebum, and even more so if you’ve got very thick hair.
Herein lies the problem: “Odour-causing fungus and bacteria thrive in a damp environment,” said Chia. It’s the same reason why clothes that haven’t been dried out in the sun can reek sometimes.
And it gets worse. “Damp hair also traps more dirt and pollutants from the environment causing itchy [and] irritated scalp,” said Dr Liew.
Fun fact: Dr Liew shared that dry hair as opposed to damp hair can also reduce trapping scents like oil from restaurants (just think how your hair reeks after a K-barbecue dinner) or cigarette smoke within. This is why it’s important to blow-dry your hair after wash when possible. In fact, Chia added that it doesn’t even matter when you wash your hair, it’s more important to make time to blow-dry it after. And of course, always do so using medium heat.
3. Consider a deep cleanse at least once a week
To help remove sebum, dead skin and product build-up, use an exfoliating scalp cleanser once a week. But if scalp and hair is feeling particularly greasy, Dr Liew recommended using anti-dandruff shampoos that contain active ingredients like ketoconazole (an anti-fungal medicine) and benzalkonium (an antiseptic agent), or tar shampoo in more severe cases, to combat yeast and micro-organisms growth.
Though Chia cautioned against using such detoxifying shampoos too often in a week as it can strip your scalp of moisture, which can lead to it being imbalance, resulting in more issues down the line.
As a rule of thumb, both Dr Liew and Chia shared that such products should be used between one to three times a week, depending the severity of your scalp issue. And don’t forget to use a gentle, hydrating shampoo on the other days.
4. Don't use too many products at one time
It’s normal to want to find the quickest and best solution to your scalp woes, but Dr Liew warned against giving in to using too many scalp and hair products at any one time. She explained that mixing too many products together can cause more problems. Worse still, if an allergy arises or your scalp condition worsens, it will make it difficult to identify the cause of it too.
The same goes to being tempted to switch out your scalp and hair care products too quickly. Said Dr Liew, “They require at least a few weeks or even months to see improvement, so at least finish the bottle of shampoo you’re using before trying out others.” So unless the product causes severe itching, it’s best to stick with it to reap the benefits.
At the same time, Dr Yong also advised against using heavily fragrance haircare products. These can “mask the smell if there is any underlying scalp sensitivities or allergies”, which in turn, “may not treat the root cause of the problem but may in fact give rise to further scalp irritation”.
More importantly, if your scalp condition is not improving, don’t continue to buy more products to try, Dr Liew added. Instead, it may be time to seek medical help.
5. Keep your protective head gear breathable
With Singapore’s heat and humidity, sweating, especially when you’re out and about. And with this in mind, Dr Yong explained that wearing tight, occlusive headgear can trap and increase the build-up of sweat. So if you wear a tudung or have a habit of wearing caps, Dr Yong advised to “use something that is more breathable and which is frequently washed for better hygiene”.
6. Don't rely on quick fixes too much
It’s clear that sweat and sebum are the main culprits of hair smelling bad, which is why many reach out for a dry shampoo when they can’t wash their hair. But don’t be too quick to keep layering on that dry shampoo.
“Dry shampoo should be a last resort,” said Chia, who advised against using it for a prolonged period of time. He explained that too much dry shampoo on the scalp “can be over-drying and might cause congestion”, which can lead to more problems.
Another quick fix to keep hair smelling fresh is with hair perfume. While this is perfectly fine for in-between refreshing, Chia also reminded us that hair perfumes should always be “sprayed on the hair, not the scalp”.
Ultimately, Dr Liew shared that you should “treat your scalp like your face, as it can be very delicate”. So if your scalp woes still persist after following these dos and don’ts, then it would be wise to seek medical help.
7 SMELLY SCALP-BUSTING HAIRCARE PRODUCTS TO TRY
1. Aveda Scalp Solution Refreshing Protective Mist, S$84
With its 98 per cent naturally derived active ingredients, including centella asiatica, rosemary, ginger and licorice extracts, together with vitamin E and zinc PCA, this silicone-free mist inhibits excess sebum production so scalp feels fresh all day.
Available at Aveda official mall at https://www.lazada.sg/
2. Gallinee Soothing Hair Cleansing Cream, S$38
Help keep your scalp’s microbiome in check with this gentle cleansing shampoo. It’s enriched with fermented rice water and the brand’s unique pre- and post-biotic complex to sooth the scalp and leave hair healthy, soft and shiny.
3. Oribe Serene Scalp Exfoliation Scrub, S$76
A weekly deep cleanse can do your scalp good. This gentle scalp scrub efficiently removes impurities, dead skin and product build-up with its blend of alpha hydroxy acids and fruit extracts.
Available at Oribe partner salons.
4. Kristin Ess Style Reviving Dry Shampoo, S$29.25
Keeps scalp and hair feeling fresh as it wicks away oil, reducing unpleasant odour in-between hair wash. It even revives flat and limp locks, giving hair an instant boost of volume, and comes magnolia and sandalwood scented, which leaves hair smelling good too.
5. Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Tea Tree Scalp Treatment Serum, S$57
A soothing serum treatment to restore scalp health and keep it balanced. Its formula of Binchotan charcoal draws out impurities from the scalp and follicles, and peppermint, spearmint and tea tree oils reduce scalp itch and inflammation, while witch hazel water normalises oil production.
6. Kerastase Specifique Soothing And Hydrating Scalp Masque, S$77
Say goodbye to dryness, oily roots, dandruff and scalp irritation with this gentle silicone-free mask. Not only does it soothe, it also purifies with skin-loving actives like antioxidant-rich L-carnosine, vitamin E and moringa.
7. Jo Malone London English Pear & Freesia Hair Mist, S$87
Need a quick scent fix? Give your tresses a spritz of this lightweight hair mist to cover unpleasant smells like cigarette smoke or bbq. Plus, we love that it also contains argan oil and pro vitamin B to nourish and soften the hair too.