Why Does My Hair Smell Like Wet Dog? How To Get Rid of the Smell

Cute woman with curly hair with smelly hair syndrome wearing pink lipstick and dress shirt

As off-putting as it might be, wet dog smell in hair is a completely normal phenomenon. Perfectly hygienic people all over wake up with wet dog-scented hair and wonder, “why does my hair smell like wet dog?”

If you’re one of these people, you need answers – luckily, we’re here to enlighten you. There are several things that could be to blame, and in this article, we’ll reveal all of the main culprits.

Why Does My Hair Smell Like Wet Dog?

The causes behind wet dog smell are primarily biological: bacteria, sweat, infections of the scalp, and more. In this section, we’ll take a deep dive into these causes to give you some insight into why your hair smells bad.

Smelly Sebum

The leading cause of wet dog smell is smelly sebum, natural oil production that originates in the scalp’s sebaceous glands. The point of sebum is to lubricate the hair shaft, locking in moisture and promoting healthiness and shine.

Though the secretion of sebum is both natural and necessary, the presence of bacteria or odors from the food you ingest can make it smell bad. Overproduction of sebum can also result in a funky smell emanating from your scalp. 

While you may not have much control over the bacteria on your smelly scalp, fried foods, garlic, and onions can all cause your sebum to smell. 

Pretty woman with smelly scalp syndrome caused by excessive sebum and an oily scalp

Untreated Dandruff

Dandruff is a condition where the scalp sloughs off skin flakes. These flakes of dead skin can cause build-up, scalp irritation, residue, and, thus, the proliferation of bacteria. When dandruff is left to its own devices, a smell may develop. 

Sweating A Great Deal

The second cause of wet dog smell is sweat, which can sometimes act like an odor activator. The sweat mixes with the bacteria on the scalp and emits a powerful odor in some people.

If you notice that the wet dog smell is most noticeable after you’ve sweated a bunch, this could be the cause you’ve been looking for. 

Mold Growth

Sometimes the wet dog smell can be confused with the scent of mold. The truth is that moldy hair can be undetectable to the eye in its early stages, but it can smell really bad.

Mold growth in hair stems from a ton of things, but the most common cause of moldy hair is leaving your hair wet for an extended period of time. 

Hot Water

Yes, hot water can contribute to that wet dog smell. The issue with hot water is that it zaps your scalp of sebum and thrusts your sebaceous glands into overdrive. Once that happens, your scalp becomes overly oily, and there goes that dreaded stench. 

Hormonal Imbalance

It’s incredible how much damage a simple hormonal imbalance can do to the human body, from hair loss to male pattern hair growth in women to acne and a host of other complications. It turns out that a hormonal imbalance can make your hair smell bad, too!

This happens because stress and anxiety throw the body’s sebum production off balance, causing either too much sebum (resulting in wet dog smell) or too little (resulting in dryness).

How To Get Rid of Wet Dog Smell

Caucasian female with wavy hair styled with tea tree oil and other natural oils

Now you know several potential reasons why your hair smells like a wet dog. Now let’s look at how to eliminate the smell. These tips are quick, easy, and effective. They also won’t cost you an arm and a leg, so no worries there.

Clarifying Shampoo

Clarifying shampoo is the number one go-to for suspicious hair smells. This type of shampoo, as its name suggests, will clear all the unwanted residue out of your hair, including the bacteria or oils causing the smell.

Though clarifying shampoo works wonders for all types of hair, it is especially useful for locs. Locs tend to harbor more residue, oils, and bacteria than loose hair. That’s why people with locs often tend to use a clarifying shampoo either exclusively or at least once a month.

Maple Holistics Tea Tree Shampoo is a great natural clarifying shampoo. It is sulfate-free and formulated to cleanse the hair deeply, removing residue from sebum and chemical hair products.

To use it, all you’ve got to do is saturate your hair with water, massage some shampoo into your hair, and then rinse thoroughly. 

After one clarifying shampoo session, you may notice a dramatic difference in your hair’s smell. 

Dry Your Hair Thoroughly

Drying your hair thoroughly after shampooing it, getting rained on, or sweating is extremely important. When your scalp is left wet for a while, the chances of developing a wet dog smell skyrocket. So, break out your microfiber towel, blow dryer, or hooded dryer and get that hair 100% dry. 

White female with oily hair looking up towards the sky

Wash Your Hair with Lukewarm Water

Since hot water sets off a smelly chain reaction of dry scalp, sebum overproduction, and an awful smell, we advise you to stay away from it. After lathering your hair up, always use lukewarm or even cold water for rinsing. 

Try Essential Oils

If you’re in a situation where you don’t have the time to properly address the wet dog smell, you can apply essential oils to your scalp and hair to disguise the smell.

From peppermint to lavender to orange peel, there are tons of fragrant varieties to try out. Just make sure that you dilute the essential oil with a carrier oil (olive oil, coconut oil, etc.) to guard against hair dryness and scalp reactions. 

Treat Dandruff

The easiest method of treating dandruff, which could be behind the wet dog smell, is to buy a medicated dandruff shampoo. T Gel is one of the best-medicated shampoos available online.

It effectively treats psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis, two conditions that cause dandruff. Once these issues are under control, the wet dog smell should subside. 

How To Prevent Wet Dog Smell in the Future

Pretty white girl with scalp smell treated with a few drops of lemon juice

Once you get rid of the wet dog smell, we’ll bet you never want it to return. Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to prevent the smell from creeping up again. We’ll take a look at them below: 

Wash Your Hair Regularly

In the black community, we tend to encourage washing our hair sparingly since one of our main goals is to maintain moisture and, thus, maintain length.

But if you have the type of hair that produces more sebum, you are going to want to forget the “Once a week!” mantra the rest of the community swears by and instead wash your hair every two to three days.

Doing so will prevent sebum and residue build-up, leaving your hair sweet-smelling instead of sour. Don’t forget to dry your hair thoroughly afterward, too. 

Cover Your Hair Outside

If you live in an urban jungle full of smog and pollution, it’s a good idea to cover your hair when going outside. Not only will you be protecting it from harmful sun exposure, but you will also keep pollution and grime at bay.

You have several options for protecting your hair from the smelly outside elements, including bonnets, hats, and scarves. Just make sure that your headwear isn’t absorbent (cotton is the worst), as it will zap your hair of all moisture. 

A confident lady wearing business clothes with face make-up and her arms folded

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And that’s it: the why and how concerning the wet dog smell in your hair! Follow the steps in this article, and you’ll be well on your way towards odor-free, beautiful hair.

There’s no need to be embarrassed by how your hair smells when you know what to do to remedy it. We wish you the absolute best with your hair now and in the future.

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