15 Natural Remedies for Smelly Hair

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

When your hair smells bad, you feel bad. Smelly hair is embarrassing in social situations, it’s humiliating in professional settings and it’s a passion killer in romantic encounters.

The odor manifests in different ways for different people, with victims of noxious hair describing their hair as reeking of wet dog, dirty diapers, mildew, cheese, sour milk, stinky socks, and even vomit.

So how do you fix the stink?

If banishing the odor was as simple as giving your hair an industrial strength shampooing, you wouldn’t be here looking for a solution. You’d have washed twice, conditioned, dried and styled your hair, and be getting on with your day.

Instead, you’re trawling the depths of the internet looking for the holy grail of odor banishing hair treatments.

Well, sit back and relax, you’re in the right place. We’ve dug deep into the problem to discover what causes smelly hair and found the best home remedies that you can you use to make your hair smell fresh and fragrant again.

Why Does Your Hair Smell So Bad?

Your Environment

Hair picks up odors from the environment. If youre in a room filled with cigarette smoke, your hair will smell like an ashtray, if you’re frying food in the kitchen, then the greasy mist that wafts up from the pan will settle on your hair. If you don’t wash your hair regularly in these situations, the smells will build up and become offensive.

Hot weather which causes you to sweat more heavily will also contribute to smelly hair, as the seat on your scalp grows stale and acts just like body odor.

Greasy Hair

Greasy hair is more prone to smelling unpleasant than normal or dry hair because the odors and dirt cling to the oil.

Wearing hats or scarves

Hats and scarves make your head warmer, increase the amount of sweat your scalp produces and minimize the airflow that keep your scalp in good health. Try leaving your had uncovered for a while and see if you notice any improvement.

Scalp Infection 

A scalp infection is the most common culprit when it comes to smelly hair. Your scalp can provide the perfect breeding ground for microbes. It’s warm, it’s frequently damp – whether from sweating or from sitting around with wet hair after you shower, and the dead skin flakes and natural oils provide a never ending food source for the bacteria and fungus living there.

Certain Foods 

An overgrowth of yeast in your system could be causing your scalp to emit strong odors. Yeasts feed on sugars, so try to cut back on obviously sugary foods. You may also need to limit the amount of carbohydrates that you consume (bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, etc.) because carbohydrates are broken down into sugars when you eat them.

Other food culprits could be harder to track down. You could have a food allergy or intolerance that’s manifesting as a smelly scalp. If the home remedies for nixing infections don’t get rid of the problem, you may want to follow an elimination diet to find out if certain foods trigger the odor.


Some types of antidepressant, anti-inflammatory and seizure medications can cause excess sweating with a foul odor.

Is it Your Hair or Your Scalp That Smells?

Wash your hands, and then (if your hair is long enough) pull a lock of your hair in front of your nose. Does it smell?

Now rub your fingertips around on your scalp. Bring them to your nose? Do they smell?

If your hair doesn’t smell, or doesn’t smell strongly, but your scalp gives off a nasty whiff, then the problem is on your scalp, and it’s most likely caused by an overgrowth of bacteria or fungus.

If your hair smells, but your scalp is odor free, then the origin of the smell will be environmental or caused by the buildup of sweat or oily secretions from your scalp coating your hair shaft.

Tea Tree Essential Oil

Tea tree essential oil is a powerful antibacterial and antifungal that you can use to treat your smelly hair and scalp.

The easiest, no fuss way to use tea tree oil is to add it to a mild shampoo.

Take the cap off your shampoo bottle and empty the contents into a measuring jug. Add 25 drops of tea tree oil per ½ cup of shampoo and use a spoon to mix it in really well. Carefully pour your new tea tree shampoo back into the bottle and it’s ready to use.

The tea tree oil will get to work on any bacteria or fungus causing scalp problems, and the strong, yet pleasant aroma will help to mask bad hair smells until the underlying problem clears up.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is an excellent deodorizer

Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is an excellent deodorizer. Even though it has strong smell of its own, the vinegary smell disappears once your hair is dry. So don’t let the initial smell put you off using it.

ACV can also help tackle any fungal infections on your scalp. The acetic acid and natural enzymes in raw organic apple cider vinegar, combat fungus and balance scalp pH, making the scalp less hospitable to fungal growth.

Many grocery stores stock products claiming to be apple cider vinegar, but you need to read the label to make sure that you’re getting the real deal. Much of the apple cider vinegar on the shelves isn’t apple cider vinegar at all. It’s actually plain old white vinegar with a touch of caramel coloring. Outrageous right!

One way to ensure that you get real apple cider vinegar is to buy the Bragg brand.

To get the best results from apple cider vinegar, you can take it internally as well as use it as a topical treatment on your hair and scalp.

Mix one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in an 8oz glass of water and drink two or three times a day. If you’re not a fan of the flavor, you can add some stevia.

To use apple cider vinegar on your hair, fill up a jug with lukewarm water and mix in 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. Carefully pour the mix over your hair a little at a time, massaging it into your scalp with your fingers.

Be careful not to get any in your eyes because it will sting!

Because apple cider vinegar is a natural conditioner, you don’t need to use any synthetic conditioners to detangle your hair and leave it soft and shiny.

Regular conditioners attract dirt and hold onto grease. When you use them you need to wash your hair more frequently and washing hair too frequently is a major cause of scalp pH imbalance, dandruff,  and damaged hair.

Cinnamon and Honey Hair Mask

This smelly hair home remedy is a little messier than the ones we’ve covered so far and it takes longer to use, so it’s not one to try in the morning before you embark on a busy day.

This hair mask is perfect to use in the evening and at the weekend though!

Honey is a natural antibacterial, and it’s been used to kill gems for thousands of years. When you shop for honey, look for raw, organic honey. Yes, it costs more, but the other types of honey on offer aren’t worth spending a dime on if you’re looking for health benefits.

Most commercial honey, while retaining its sweet flavor, has been degraded by processing and filtration methods, and some honey is just plain fake – being made from cheap high fructose corn syrup.

So how do you find real honey?

Check out the raw honey on offer at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, or look for honey from local producers. Amazon also sell a great brand – Y.S. Eco Bee Farms Raw Honey.

Manuka honey is another option, but because this type of honey has become so popular thanks to its now very well known healing properties, there are a lot of fakes around.

Cinnamon is a fantastic spice with many health benefits of its own. When you add cinnamon to your honey, you get a strong antifungal boost. And luckily cinnamon is easy to source. Whatever you pick up from your local grocery store will be just fine.

Pour one cup of water into a pan and bring to the boil. Add half a teaspoon of cinnamon, reduce heat and simmer for thirty minutes. Leave to cool to a comfortable temperature, then add one tablespoon of raw honey. Mix well, then massage into your hair and scalp.

Cover up with a shower cap, or wrap your hair in a towel and leave the hair mask to work for 45 minutes to one hair. Then rinse out.

If you used raw, natural honey, your hair won’t feel sticky and it won’t need any further washing.

Onion and Garlic Juice

Okay, this remedy is going to smell bad, but it’s worth it. Onion and garlic are both powerful antifungals and garlic is a potent anti bacterial too.

If you have a juicer, throw in one large onion and 6 large cloves of garlic. Otherwise use a regular blender and either strain the juice through a coffee filter or use the entire pulp on your hair.

Take the juice and massage it into your scalp, leave for half an hour, then rinse out with warm water and wash your hair well with shampoo.

If you’re scalp is sore, skip this remedy, because the juice of these two will sting and burn irritated skin.

Lemon Juice

Lemon water recipes

This natural remedy is really simple, and it smells fresh and clean.

Lemon juice is a great odor neutralizer, and it’s regularly used in natural cleaning circles to get rid of bad smells in sink drains and garbage cans, so lemon juice should be able to cope with the smells from your hair.

In addition to its deodorizing properties, lemon juice, like apple cider vinegar is a mild acid that can balance your scalp pH. And it can take the place of your conditioner too!

Take the juice from two lemons and mix it with one cup of water. Pour into a spray bottle and spritz the lemon onto your hair and scalp. Leave for ten minutes then rinse out.

Never use undiluted lemon juice as it can lighten dark or color treated hair.

Natural Shampoo Bars

Most shampoos – even the ones produced by big name brands – are nothing more than detergents. They don’t care for your hair; they ruin it, and you need to use conditioners and other hair treatments to temporarily fix the damage the shampoo causes.

Great for the corporations that own the brands, they get to sell more product and line their pockets, but it’s a raw deal for your hair.

Shampoos do more than ruin your hair though. They strip the scalp of its natural protective oils, which can cause you body to produce even more oil, and lead to greasy, smelly hair. They also disturb your scalps healthy pH balance.

The natural oils produced by your skin mix with sweat and combined they form a protective acid mantle that stops harmful bacteria and fungus taking up residence on your scalp.

So, when you have a smelly scalp with a resident community of bacteria and fungus, washing your hair with your regular shampoo will only prolong the problem. You need to fix the pH and restore the mantle.

But you still need to wash your hair, so what do you use?

If you don’t use styling products, you can wash your hair very well with diluted apple cider vinegar or lemon juice (see above). You don’t actually need shampoo at all – check in with the No Poo Method to learn more.

But if you do use styling products, you’ll need a gentle cleansing solution that doesn’t make the situation on your scalp worse, and that’s where natural shampoo bars come in.

Instead of having a detergent base like other shampoos, shampoo bars use natural soap, honey, goats milk, coconut milk, herbs, essential oils and many more nourishing ingredients to nurture your scalp and hair and restore balance.

Take a look at the affordable selection on offer at Chagrin Valley Soaps, their neem and tea tree oil shampoo bar would be particularly suitable for your smelly hair problem.

The remedies we’ve already mentioned should form the basis of any smelly hair treatment regimen, but there are other options that you can try.

Lavender Essential Oil

Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Scalp Acne Shampoo

Like tea tree oil, lavender essential oil has antifungal and antibacterial properties. The fresh lavender fragrance will also mask unpleasant odors. While tea tree oil is a stronger antifungal, it also has a much stronger aroma which you may not want lingering on your hair all day. Some people love the smell of tea tree oil others loathe it.

True lavender – not the nasty, synthetic copies – has a sweet, herbaceous, floral fragrance which will make your hair smell wonderful.

Lavender is also one of the few essential oils that you can use undiluted, so you can easily take a few drops and massage it into your scalp and through your hair several times a day.

Because of this, it makes the perfect on-the-go solution to smelly hair problems – combatting bacteria and fungus and keeping your hair fresh all day long.

Tomato Juice

The natural, mild acids in tomatoes can help to restore the pH balance on your scalp and make it less hospitable to bacteria and fungus.

Juice or blend fresh tomatoes and apply the liquid to your hair and scalp. If your hair is short, you’ll only need a couple of tomatoes, if it’s longer you’ll need five or six.

Natural Probiotic Yogurt

A good quality, probiotic yogurt, full of natural friendly bacteria can help to combat scalp problems. Probiotic yogurt contain bacteria like lactobacillus which crowd out the harmful bacteria causing your problem. The mild acid in yogurt also helps to normalize scalp pH.

Simply take a pot of yogurt and massage it into your hair. Cover up with a shower cap and leave for half an hour, then rinse with warm water.

Orange Peel

Orange peel contains natural microbe killing properties and can help to banish hair and scalp odor and leave hair smelling fresh and fruity.

Remove the peel from two large oranges and add to a pan of simmering water. Simmer the peel for half an hour, then let the water cool. Remove the orange peel and pour the water into a spray bottle.

Spritz the orange water through your hair and leave to dry.

Cilantro Tea

Also known as coriander, cilantro is a potent microbe buster. The best known substance in cilantro in the antibacterial compound, dodecenal, but cilantro is also useful for treating fungal problems too.

Take 4 teaspoons of cilantro seeds and steep them in boiling water until the water cools. Strain the seeds out, then pour the liquid into a spray bottle.

Spritz into your hair and leave to dry. No need to rinse out.

Sulfur Shampoo

Mix a homemade shampoo

Shampoos formulated for dandruff can be a helpful way to eliminate scalp odor because they target the fungus causing the problem – although they won’t help if the cause of the odor is bacterial.

These shampoos aren’t a long term solution though because they don’t address the reason for the fungal overgrowth – an out of balance scalp pH.

Once you have the odor under control, switch to shampoo bar and use apple cider vinegar or lemon juice as your conditioner.

Dry Shampoos

Dry shampoos are convenient to use throughout the day for an odor busting touch up. Dry shampoos contain ingredients that absorb excess oils and neutralize odor. They won’t cure your problem but still make a useful weapon in your armory.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Only suitable for those with light hair color – if you’re not blonde don’t use this method!  Hydrogen peroxide can be diluted and applied to the scalp and hair to kill malodorous microbes.

Use the 3% strength hydrogen peroxide that’s available from any pharmacy or drugstore. Add one tablespoon to a cup of water and massage into your scalp then rinse off right away.

Zinc Shampoo

Look in your drugstore or online to find a shampoo containing zinc pyrithione. Zinc shampoos are antifungal and can fight bacteria too.

Grapefruit Seed Extract

Grapefruit Seed extract or GSE kills bacteria and fungus

Grapefruit Seed extract or GSE kills bacteria and fungus. But it’s very, very strong so you must dilute it. Don’t be tempted to try it neat on your scalp or on any other part of your body, or you’ll end up with chemical burns. Seriously, don’t use it neat!

Use 3-4 drops of GSE (the Citricidal brand is good quality) diluted in a 4 oz glass of water. Stir to mix, then massage into your scalp and throughout your hair. No need to rinse.

By using the natural remedies listed above, either alone or in combination, you should be able to get your hair and scalp odor under control and eliminate the root cause so it goes away once and for all.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.