Hair-Care Tips

‘I’m a Dermatologist, and These Are the 3 Things to Blame for Your Stinky Scalp’

Kells McPhillips

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Photo: Getty Images/Stephen Zeigler

Yesterday, my boyfriend wrapped me in his arms and told me—very romantically—that my hair “sometimes stinks right around the scalp area.” In the span of a moment, reality came crashing over me: Dry shampoo doesn’t a fresh head of hair make. The pungent odor wafting from my side part proves as much, so I called up dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, to ask a question: “Why does my scalp smell?”

“There are really three things that cause scalp-odor,” says Dr. Mudgil, all of which may apply to any type of hair. “Two are the genetic, inflammatory skin conditions dandruff and psoriasis.” Both, he says, can cause a flakey build-up that sits on the scalp and starts to smell over time if you’re not striking the proper balance of washing with dandruff shampoo and letting the protective oils percolate on your head.

So, yes: Unfortunately, causes one and two will require trial and error in order to find the most ideal wash and repeat schedule for you. (And as a dandruff-host myself, believe me, I’ll be doing the same.) Luckily, though, Dr. Mudgil tells me the last and most likely cause of scalp stink is the days (or even weeks…) of dry shampoo, hair mists, and deep conditioners still clinging to your hair.

“A lot of times, residues from shampoos and conditioners can actually stay in the scalp and make its greasy—no matter what you do,” says Dr. Mudgil. And I’m sorry to say that dry shampoo (which can make one wash stretch a week or more), is likely to blame for whatever’s happening… up there. “Build up of the dry shampoo can trap unwanted bacteria and create unhealthy yeast leading to developing abnormal scalp conditions, and the product build-up slows down cellular turn over and distribution of nutrients which weaken the hair follicle,” colorist Bridgette Hill with Paul Labrecque Salon and Skincare Spa told Well+Good.

If you find yourself suffering from cause number three (as I am along with my dandruff), Dr. Mugil says one perhaps unconventional remedy is applying—wait for it—dish soap. “Using dishwashing soap brings out all the grease that gets stuck in the hair, and restores the hair back to your baseline,” says Dr. Mudgil.

You could also try a scalp scrub if you suspect vintage products have set up shop on your head, but derms recommend sticking with a physical or chemical exfoliant if you’re dealing with dandruff. And if you have psoriasis, it’s best to skip scalp scrubs all together and sticking with you psoriasis shampoos.

As for me, I’ll be reaching for a good scalp scrub and vowing half-heartedly to wash my hair more (lol). Or, I don’t know, maybe the best thing for my relationship is to issue a no scalp smelling rule. Gotta keep the romance alive, right?

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