What Causes Scalp Odor?

Scalp odor may be unpleasant, but it is often easily treated. You may need to try a medicated shampoo, see a doctor for a prescription medicine or simply make some changes to your diet. Unusual body odors may be signs of medical conditions, so it’s important to determine the cause of the odor to make sure you’re treating the right problem.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.


As with other body odors, a scalp odor is often caused by sweat interacting with bacteria on the skin. The body has two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine glands secrete fluid onto the skin to help cool the body as the fluid evaporates. MayoClinic.com reports that apocrine glands develop in areas where you have a lot of hair follicles, such as the scalp. These glands secrete a fatty sweat that may be pushed to the surface of the skin when you’re under emotional stress. Odor may develop from the bacterial breakdown of apocrine sweat. If your body odor changes or you suddenly start sweating more or less than usual, it’s time to see a doctor. These could be signs of other medical conditions.


Fungal infections may be responsible for scalp odor. Tinea capitis, more commonly known as ringworm, may cause a funny odor on the scalp. Scalp ringworm causes dandruff-like flakes, bald areas on the skin and scabs or pus-filled bumps on the scalp. The ringworm may be itchy and may appear on other areas of the skin, too. Ringworm is contagious and is more common in children than adults. Children often develop ringworm after sharing combs, brushes, hats or barrettes with others who have the infection. It’s treated with medicated shampoos and oral prescription medicine.


What you eat may contribute to how you smell. The way your sweat smells can change if you eat food with a strong odor, such as onions, garlic or cumin, notes MayoClinic.com. These foods contain oils that might cause an odor when excreted through the skin. If you drink a lot of beverages with caffeine, they can increase the amount of sweat you produce and lead to more odor from your scalp. In addition, your mood, hormone levels, medications and medical conditions may be influential.