How To Get Stubborn Smells Out Of Your Hair

Anyone who's ever spent time around a campfire, a cigarette smoker, worked in a restaurant, or spent a night out at the bar knows what a pain it can be to get the resulting smells out of your hair the next day. According to Live Science, our noses can detect more than a trillion different smells, some of which, like tobacco smoke, seem to take up long-term residence in our clothing and hair. Obviously, you could simply wash your hair and have the lingering smell disappear in a flash. However, that isn't always an option. Maybe you're on a hiking trip with no access to a shower, or perhaps you forgot to set your alarm after a night out with the girls and are running late to work. You don't want to stink, so what do you do?


Stubborn smells in your hair can be difficult to remove, but they aren't impossible. Quick-fix solutions like odor-neutralizing baking soda, apple cider vinegar, dry shampoo, or a spritz of rosemary essential oil hair mist are excellent tools for on-the-go scent correction. Depending on your hair type and needs, preventative measures like regular shampooing and conditioning can also help keep bad smells from sticking in the first place (via One How To).

The structure of your hair plays a role in smell absorption

Before you can understand if or why your hair attracts different odors, it is important to understand the structure of hair and the concept of hair porosity. According to Healthline, each strand of hair consists of three layers: the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla. The cuticle, which is made up of dead, overlapping cells, is the protective outer layer surrounding the hair filament (via National Library of Medicine). The cortex is the thickest part of the strand and what gives hair its color, while the medulla is the soft, inner core of the hair shaft.


Hair is divided into three categories based on porosity and permeability. Low-porosity hair has cuticles that are close together while medium-porosity hair has cuticles that are more loosely bound. Low porosity hair, which is generally curly or coarse, has a hard time absorbing product and takes a long time to dry naturally. This hair structure also doesn't absorb errant smells like campfire smoke or dive bar beers. Medium- or normal-porosity hair both absorbs and retains moisture well, and generally looks smooth, shiny, and healthy (via Function of Beauty). It is considered the ideal hair structure because it can tolerate almost any kind of treatment or product you put on it.

High-porosity hair absorbs odors the easiest

On the other end of the spectrum is high-porosity hair. The cuticles in high-porosity hair are spaced far apart, making it easy for hair to soak up necessary moisture and nutrients. "High-porosity hair can be genetic or as a result of hair fiber processing or damage due to chemical processing or heat styling," trichologist Bridgette Hill tells Vogue. "High-porosity hair means that the cuticle has large gaps allowing moisture to enter seamlessly, however, the hair is unable to retain the moisture that is able to penetrate the hair fiber."


This means that the widely spaced cuticles that help soak up moisture also make it easy to lose it quickly, which can lead to dry, frizzy hair. It also makes it easy for odors and pungent smells to stick to the strands. According to Asili, high-porosity hair easily absorbs sweat, dirt, and smoke, among other scents.

If you have high-porosity hair, the products and treatments you use in your hair care routine can play an important role in managing dryness and breakage and keeping it from holding onto every odor you encounter. In addition to using heat styling tools in moderation and avoiding putting too many chemicals on your hair, using anti-humectant products will help seal the porous cuticle and keep it from absorbing errant smells and excess moisture (via by L'Oreal).


Use a scented dry shampoo

Dry shampoo has become a staple in most hair care routines due to its ability to freshen unwashed hair and revitalize limp styles. It is safe for all types of hair, even ones that are more likely to trap pungent odors. Natural hair care brand The Earthling Co. explains that most people need only apply their favorite dry shampoo to their roots and let it absorb for a couple of minutes before brushing and styling as normal. Alternatively, applying dry shampoo to your hair before going to bed gives the product plenty of time to soak up excess oil and odor, leaving you with better-smelling hair in the morning.


It is important to remember that while scented dry shampoo can help mask or remove odors, it won't actually clean your hair and scalp. "The scalp collects chemicals and pollutants both from the air and from cosmetic care products," dermatologist Dr. Wilma Bergfeld, M.D. explains to Cleveland Clinic. "Dry shampoo freshens your hair by removing oils, but its actual cleansing power is only minimal. Dry shampooing has its place, but it can't replace wet shampoo. Your hair and scalp need to be washed and rinsed intermittently to keep it clean."

Coat your hair with aloe vera

Aloe vera gel is an excellent home remedy for removing trapped odors from hair. The plant contains over 75 active amino acids, enzymes, salicylic acids, vitamins, and minerals which have anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties that can attack odor at its source (via National Library of Medicine). As Dr. Niketa Sonavane tells BeBeautiful.In, "Aloe vera is largely made up of water and is rich in vitamins A, C, and E, antioxidants that neutralize free radical damage. Besides this, aloe is also a rich source of minerals such as calcium, chromium, copper, selenium, and magnesium. These are the key minerals in skin, hair, and nail supplements. ... Furthermore, aloe vera contains fatty acids that form a protective film on the hair lock in the moisture."


Although aloe vera is a main ingredient of numerous shampoos and conditioners, individual leaves can be purchased from the produce section of your local grocery store. You can cut off the serrated edges of a single aloe vera leaf, remove the top of the leaf with a vegetable peeler, and scrape out the jelly-like gel using a knife or spoon (via Greatist). The aloe gel can be applied directly to your hair and what is left over can be stored for up to a week in the fridge.

Spray your hair with lemon juice

Lemons are a zesty treat perfect for jazzing up iced tea and bringing a much-needed citrus punch to everything from pasta to fish dishes. They are also an extraordinarily healthy food with powerful anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties proven to help treat skin and scalp conditions that may cause odor. Be Healthy Enough notes that the citric acid in lemons helps deodorize trapped smells. It is particularly useful to combat odors from fry oil or cooked food.


According to Motorhomes 2 Go, zest the peel of a lemon into a spray bottle and fill it with clean water at least 30 minutes before you plan to apply it to your hair. Once the water has had sufficient time to absorb the citrus oils from the peel, spray the mixture in an even coat over your hair. As it dries, the citric acid gets to work deodorizing each strand of hair.

Clean your hairbrush and comb

Keeping your hairbrush and combs clean can help control odor and keep undesirable skin conditions at bay. "People often underestimate how important it is to keep your hairbrush clean, but it's incredibly important," Neil Barton, owner of Neil Barton Hair, tells Glamour. "Not cleaning your hairbrush can lead to germs and bacteria being passed onto your hair and scalp from the residue on the brush, and this can leave your hair looking not only greasy but also limp and lifeless."


The combination of bacteria and product residue can lead to skin irritation, fungal infections, and unpleasant smells emanating from both your scalp and your strands. If you don't wash your brush regularly, every time you detangle you may be reintroducing grime and smells you've shampooed away back into your hair. notes that there is no exact schedule to follow when it comes to washing your hairbrush for optimal cleanliness and odor control. However, if you have long hair, work out regularly, or use a lot of styling products, it is recommended to wash your hair at least once a week.

Apply baking soda to your scalp and hair

Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, is an effective deodorizer that has been used for decades in both domestic and industrial uses (via ACS Publications). You may have seen your mom or grandma use it to absorb odors in kitchen appliances, carpets, or clothing. It even works to trap body odors and makes a great all-natural deodorant. The reason for its powerful deodorizing abilities comes down to chemistry. As Alex Reed, co-founder of Truman's, a company that makes cleaning products, tells, "Most smells are acidic in nature, and baking soda can be a pH neutralizer."


This at-home remedy works wonders on smoky smells. If you find your hair latches onto the smell of campfires or cigarette smoke, a quick application of baking soda to the scalp and hair will make the stale, acrid smell disappear in a matter of hours. According to Curl Centric, you only need to use a small amount to get results. Simply pour a small amount in the palm of your hand and comb it through your hair using your fingers, making sure to coat the hair strands as evenly as possible for optimal smell absorption.

Blast your head with cool air

If you find yourself with a head full of bad-smelling hair and are within reach of your trusty hair dryer, a quick blast of cool air may do the trick to eliminate odors. According to Formulate, air circulation in general is an ideal quick fix for removing bad smells from your hair. However, cold air in particular interacts with hair in a unique way. "Cold air opens up the hair cuticle, which releases all those bad odors trapped inside," stylist Maria De Los Angeles tells StyleCaster.


While effective, this trick does come with some minor hair health risks. The hair cuticle, or the outermost layer of the hair shaft, is made up of a strong, hard protein called keratin (via Naturally Curly). Keratin is responsible for protecting the inner parts of the hair strand from damage and lies like roof shingles or fish scales over the cortex and medulla. It opens and closes to let in moisture, color, and hair products depending on the temperature applied to it. There is some debate among hair care professionals as to whether cold water can also affect the opening and closing of the hair cuticle for maximum moisture retention and shine. However, they tend to agree that opening the hair cuticles makes the inner layers of hair more susceptible to frizz, dryness, and breakage (via L'Oreal Paris).


Spray apple cider vinegar on your hair

Apple cider vinegar (ACV) has been a major player in the health and wellness scene for years, with practical uses for weight loss, improving cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and helping fight acne or fungal infections (via GoodRx Health). As an anti-inflammatory ingredient, it also has numerous benefits for maintaining a healthy scalp and beautiful, odor-free hair.


Apple cider vinegar is especially useful for fighting naturally-occurring odors that come about as the result of skin conditions like dandruff, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, or fungal infections (via Livestrong). "The antibacterial and antifungal properties of ACV help to keep the pH level of the scalp balanced," certified trichologist Gretchen Friese tells Byrdie. "Dandruff is a buildup on the scalp that happens when too much yeast is present on oily areas of the skin. Using a mix with ACV can help avoid that build-up." Furthermore, the alpha-hydroxy acid present in apple cider vinegar helps stimulate cell turnover which can help avoid irritation and infections that cause scalp odors (via HealthShots).


To utilize apple cider vinegar in your hair routine, mix no more than 4 tablespoons of vinegar with 8 ounces of cold water in a spray bottle. This will dilute the vinegar enough so that it doesn't burn. Evenly coat your scalp with the spray and work it through the ends of your hair using a wide tooth comb and let sit for up to five minutes. Then, rinse with cool water and condition it as normal.

Make a DIY hair perfume

It may be tempting to spritz your favorite perfume on your hair when it smells bad, but this method is both damaging and ineffective for removing the initial odors. According to Gisou, hair perfumes or mists are generally lightweight and have a more delicate scent than traditional perfumes, which contain drying ethyl alcohol. Additionally, hair perfumes are both water-based and formulated to contain moisturizing and conditioning ingredients that help with frizz and keep hair looking and feeling healthy.


If you don't have the funds to purchase hair perfume, you can easily make your own at home using water, hair-friendly oils, and a spray bottle. According to Vedix, peppermint oil contains a number of powerful antibacterial elements including menthone, methyl acetate, and limonene. In addition to keeping a healthy, bacteria-free scalp, this cooling oil also coats your tresses in a lovely mint scent. Rosemary oil is also great for making your hair smell nice. It also has proven benefits for hair growth and hair loss prevention in addition to reducing scalp irritation that can lead to unpleasant odors. "The rosemary plant in essential oil form is known to boost anti-inflammatory properties," board-certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist Ope Ofodile, MD, MPH tells Elle. "This would be especially beneficial to help soothe distressed scalps."


Keep your hair hydrated

Proper hydration not only results in a beautiful-looking mane but also ensures strands remain free of random odors. When your hair is dry or damaged from overwashing, heat styling, or salon treatments, the protective cuticle layer remains open rather than laying flat. "When [the cuticle] lies flat and tight, a hair strand is less porous," Dr. Francesca Fusco, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, explains to Allure. "When they are lifted or loose they are more porous." The less porous your hair is, the harder it is for smoke and food smells to get trapped.


Hydration starts at the scalp. "Sebum on your scalp is a natural conditioner and locks in moisture," Anthony Cole, a Sebastian Professional top artist, tells "For straight hair, the oils from your scalp condition strands because you can easily brush them through. But with wavy and curly hair, the oils tend to stay on the scalp due to the bends and coils." No matter what hair type you have, it is generally a good idea to start conditioning the ends of your hair and work your way up, avoiding the scalp entirely. This method prevents your scalp from becoming too oily and looking greasy.

According to Healthline, there are a number of natural plant oils and products that can help balance dehydrated hair, including jojoba, avocado, olive, and coconut oils. These can be added to weekly DIY hair masks or be ingredients in deep moisturizing shampoo and conditioners.


Avoid using heat styling tools

Although heat tools are essential to achieve spectacular hairstyles, frequent and improper use can cause damage that makes your hair more susceptible to trapping smells from your environment. According to by L'Oreal, extreme temperatures from heat styling tools can chip and tear at the hair's cuticle. This leaves gaps that allow stinky or pungent smells to slip through and cling to your hair strands.


While it is a good idea to limit your use of heat tools, you don't have to pitch all of your curling irons and blow dryers just yet. Utilizing a quality heat protectant spray is a must, not only to keep bad smells out of your hair but to prevent long-term damage.

Heat protectants work by forming a thin layer on the surface of your hair, which slows down heat conduction and distributes it more evenly across each strand (via Hairstory). They can also act like a seal on the cuticle to keep needed moisture in.

Stick to a regular hair care routine

A number of factors can contribute to smelly hair or an irritated scalp, from hormonal imbalances and pollution to diet and damaging hair care products or heat styling tools (via Skinkraft Laboratories). While there are also dozens of different ways of preventing and getting stubborn smells out of your hair, maintaining a simple, daily hair care routine may actually be the most effective.


"One of the most common hair care myths I hear is that you shouldn't wash your hair too often," trichologist Eva Proudman tells Harper's Bazaar. "However, from a trichologist's point of view, this is not true. Cleanliness is key for keeping your hair healthy and your scalp balanced, and it's possible to wash your hair without stripping away its natural shine by using shampoo, conditioner, and then a lotion to help nurture and strengthen the hair." 

A regular wash routine combined with proper products, clean styling tools, protectants, and a quality microfiber towel can all help you improve the look and feel of your hair and prevent stubborn smells from sticking around.