Dermatology/Scalp Issue?


I'm really hoping you can help me with this issue I've developed. I've noticed in the past month or so that my scalp has a weird smell. I can wash it one day and the very next day the smell is back. My gf described the smell similar to that of a rusty penny. Honestly when I started to notice the smell it freaked me out because it's the exact same way my dad's head smells. I hate that I can shower and wash my extremely short hair 3 times a day and still wake up the next morning with my hair smelling bad. When I had long hair I didn't have this problem. It's embarrassing for me. My hair is on the oily side now. It wasn't like that when I had long hair. I've stopped using conditioner and I've noticed my hair isn't as oily now. I've tried many different types of shampoos. So far I've tried dove, pantene, tresemme, head and shoulders and axe.
I really hate this. I've known for years that washing your hair everyday isn't good for the scalp but now I'm forced to otherwise I'll have the smell. I hope you can give me some advice that can help me out.

All human hair has bacteria and microorganisms. Smelly scalp syndrome occurs when there is an increase in microbial growth on the scalp. This is caused by excessive oils in the hair or on the scalp. The microorganisms thrive on the oil, and emanate on odor that is described as muggy, pungent and moldy. Smelly scalp can also be caused by environmental factors. For example if you live or work in a smoky environment, or one with many chemicals, that can contribute to a smelly scalp.

Smelly scalp is often viewed as a hygiene problem. This is incorrect. People who suffer from smelly scalp syndrome typically shower and wash their hair at least once a day. Smelly scalp has also been thought to be the result of bad nutrition or hormone imbalances. While these can affect the body's smell, this specific smell is do to bacterial growth on the scalp and not nutrition or hormones.

A dermatologist can help to diagnose and treat smelly scalp syndrome. Several over-the-counter and home remedies may help as well. Sulfur shampoos and soaps are effective at eliminating smelly scalp syndrome. The sulfur kills the bacteria, including SAL3 that contains 10 percent sulfur and 3 percent salicylic acid according to To completely destroy the scalp odor, use a sulfur soap or shampoo to wash your hair every day for a week, and then periodically after that to ensure that the bacteria have in fact died. If the topical sulfur treatment does not work, consult a dermatologist to determine if there is a prescription treatment better suited for your needs.

Treatment Availability
Sulfur shampoos that treat smelly scalp syndrome cannot be found in your local drug store. SAL3 can be bought online at with free shipping, and also is available at many beauty supply stores. Call your local beauty supply store to see if they have any sulfur shampoo in stock or if they can order it for you. Your dermatologist can also get you a prescription for topical treatments that can be obtained at your pharmacy.

Microorganisms live everywhere, and anything that touches your hair has them. While treating your smelly scalp syndrome, make sure to change your towel, your hair brush and your pillow case, as they can all be contributing to the problem. Also, before trying topical treatments, try discontinuing the use of all hair products. If the smell disappears, stop the use of those products completely. Just swapping out your current hair products for newer bottles of the same may help as well.  


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Michael S. Fisher, <B>Ph.D., M.D.</B>


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