A dermatologist explains why your hair smells really bad, like a wet dog, and how to get rid of this problem.

Peeuww ! Does your hair’s smell remind you of a wet dog? The natural scent of hair should be pleasant, almost sweet.

Its natural fragrance originates from the sebaceous glands — there’s one of these glands in each hair follicle.

The glands secrete an oily substance called sebum, and it makes its way to the surface of the scalp.

James Heilman, MD, CreativeCommons

Once there, it then makes its way onto the visible hair shaft and down the length of the hair as you brush it; the brushing (or combing) distributes the beneficial sebum all over your hair.

But a certain problem can override the scent of your hair’s natural oils, making it stink like a wet dog or just be plain smelly.

Shutterstock/Marian Fil

Cause of a Really Bad Smell in Your Hair Despite Frequent Washings

“Smelly hair is a problem that occurs after bacteria (or fungus) becomes present in the scalp,” says Dr. Joel Schlessinger, MD, board certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon with a private practice in Omaha, NE.

“While antibiotics can treat and/or cure infections on the body, the scalp and hair remain incredibly resistant to antibiotics, as the hair can act as a reservoir for these organisms.

“Regular shampoos can do quite a bit to calm frizzy hair, preserve luster or clean off oils, but the last thing (and perhaps the ‘never’ thing) they do is to deep clean bacteria and other organisms.”

How to Get Rid of the Stink in Your Hair  

Dr. Schlessinger continues, “This means that it is perfectly possible to wash hair thoroughly and miss the main thing in a situation of ‘smelly hair’ — the bacteria!  For this reason, a different approach needs to be taken.

“For one, a sulfur-containing shampoo can help.  There are many of these over the counter in drugstores.  

“I recommend a bleach-containing shampoo, CLn (lovelyskin.com/o/cln-shampoo), that not only cleans but disinfects.

“Apocrine sweat glands magnify the problem, as they contain microorganisms that, when excreted, have a smell.

“These aren’t something that can be switched off easily, and are the same cause of armpit smells.

“In the worst of cases it may be worth considering Botox injections into the scalp area if the smell isn’t contained with the treatments mentioned here.

“But these are expensive and would not be covered by insurance for the scalp area.”


“It is important to note that hair should be washed daily,” says Dr. Schlessinger.

 “In the case of ‘smelly hair’ it is necessary to wash daily and preferably prior to leaving for the day.”

Wet dog odor still persists?

“If these measures don’t work, it may be wise to see a dermatologist, as there may be a role in antibiotics or antifungals.”

Dr. Schlessinger, founder of LovelySkin.com, has 25+ years of experience treating many skin conditions including melanoma. He’s founder of the Advanced Skin Research Center, a clinical facility that investigates new medications and treatments.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.