Why does my hair smell burnt – and why is the smell lingering? If you’ve picked up on a nasty burned smell coming from your strands, there’s a reason for it. We explain what’s going on. Spoiler alert — it’s easy to fix!
Help! Why Does My Hair Smell Burnt?
We all have questions about some of the strange things our hair does, but every now and then, we stumble into a particularly hairy (forgive the pun) situation that demands an answer.
One of those situations is smelling the tell-tale odor of burnt hair when you style your hair. If you can see that your hair isn’t actually burning, this smoky, yucky smell can be really confusing.
You might be asking:
- Does it mean you’re causing permanent damage to your hair?
- Does it mean flames are about to leap from your strands?
- Will it ever go away, or is it somehow locked into your hair?
If you use hot tools to dry and style your hair and/or regularly get colors, perms, or highlights, you might’ve experienced the burnt hair smell before. Typically, it goes a little something like this:
Me: *Curls my freshly-bleached hair on the hottest setting*
Me: *Doesn’t use heat protectant*
Me: *Does this for months on end*
Me: WAIT WHAT? Why does my hair smell burnt?!
Even if you’re taking extra precautions with your hair, it’s still possible to experience that burnt hair odor when you heat style. Thankfully, there’s a simple explanation for the burned hair odor and it’s very easy to get rid of – even if you’ve been dealing with it for a while.
Read on to learn why your hair smells burnt, how to get rid of the burnt hair smell in your strands, and how to avoid it in the future. Get ready to say sayonara to the smoky scent of burning hair!
Why Does My Hair Smell Burnt? Reasons for the Odor
Does your hair smell burnt? It’s probably due to one of the following reasons:
- Over-processing with chemicals (colors, bleach, perms, etc.)
- Excessive heat-styling (curling irons, flat irons, hair dryers, etc.)
- Unprotected heat-styling (not using a heat protectant first)
- Combination of chemical and heat damage
Over-processing with chemicals, excessive and unprotected heat styling, or a combination of both types of damage can both produce the smell of burnt hair. This can occur even if your hair never actually catches on fire – in fact, physically burned hair is rarely the reason for this sickening scorched scent.
The way it works is really interesting – it’s worth a quick chemistry lesson to understand why your hair smells burnt!
Your hair is mostly made of a protein called keratin (about 90%), but it also contains a good amount of sulfur (about 5.2%). Sulfur is the compound responsible for nasty smells like rotten eggs or treated natural gas.
When you damage hair by any means, whether it’s heat or chemicals, you break down some of your hair’s protein bonds that contain sulfur. These sulfur-containing protein bonds are called disulfide linkages.
When disulfide linkages in your hair are broken due to chemical processing or heat damage, it frees up the sulfur that would normally be held in your healthy hair strands to roam around and chemically combine with the air and the rest of your hair.
What happens when free sulfur lets loose in your hair and the air around it? It smells bad. Really bad.
The smell of burnt hair is unlike any other. It’s a curious mix between the smell of burnt popcorn, a wet dog, and the naturally neutral smell of human hair and sebum (oil).
1. Chemical Damage
Chemical damage to your strands can result in the tell-tale burned hair smell. As we explained above, any treatment that breaks down the protein bonds in your hair lets naturally-occurring sulfur in your hair out.
This can result in the burnt hair smell, especially if you’ve processed your hair to the point of causing noticeable damage.
Over-processing your color, bleach, perm, or relaxer by leaving it on too long or using too-strong chemicals for the job can result in the kind of chemical damage that releases the burnt hair odor.
So can back-to-back processing (like following a perm with a color, or bleaching twice in a row) and processing already-damaged hair. It’s possible to experience that burnt hair smell after a chemical treatment, even if you never use hot tools to dry or style your hair.
That’s because the source of the odor isn’t the act of heating and burning your hair – it’s the damage done to your hair when you do anything that breaks down those sulfur-containing protein bonds
Over-processing with chemicals is one of the culprits behind hair that smells burnt.
2. Heat Damage
Heat damage could be the source of the burnt hair smell you’re picking up on in your strands. Since high temperatures cause the sulfur-containing protein bonds in your hair to break, sulfur gets released into your hair and the air around it when you damage your hair with heat.
Your hair may sustain heat damage in a number of ways, but usually, it’s due to one of the following:
- Using a heat setting that is too high for your hair
- Not using a heat protectant before heat-styling
- Leaving hot tools on your hair for too long
If you use a too-high temperature on your flat iron, curling iron, or hair dryer, leave these tools in contact with your hair for longer than you should, or fail to use a heat protectant product before you heat-style, you open your hair up to heat damage.
The scorching temperatures most hot tools are capable of reaching will physically break down the protein in your hair and release a lot of sulfur in the process. If that happens, you’ll know it because of the gross burnt hair smell emanating from your mane.
3. Combination of Chemical & Heat Damage
Many times, the real source of the burnt hair smell in your hair is actually a combination of both chemical and heat damage.
If you’re regularly hitting your hair with the one-two punch of harsh chemicals and infernally hot hair tools, it’s only a matter of time before you cause enough damage to make your hair release smelly sulfur.
This can happen slowly over a period of weeks, months, or years. Or it can happen all at once. It all depends on how healthy your hair is to begin with.
If you start out with very healthy, undamaged hair, it may take months or years of aggressive heat styling or chemical treatments to result in enough damage to cause the burnt hair smell. But let’s say your hair is already suffering from chemical processing, heat, or physical damage but smells fine.
If you suddenly throw in a new source of damage by getting a new color or using a new hot tool without heat protection, you’re essentially hitting fast-forward on the damage process and can end up with the burnt hair smell after a single damaging hair event.
Think of it like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not sure if your hair is already damaged or not? Take a look at our quick guide to find out: How to Tell If Your Hair Is Damaged | 6 Obvious Signs.
How to Remove Burnt Hair Smell From Hair
Get rid of the gross smell of burnt hair in your mane with any of these 4 simple home remedies.
Common household products and ingredients like apple cider vinegar, essential oils, vodka, and baking soda are powerful enough to bust the bad odor and restore your hair’s delightfully neutral scent!
1. Apple Cider Vinegar & Shampoo Cleanse
To get rid of the burnt hair smell in your hair, try an apple cider vinegar (ACV) and shampoo cleanse. ACV is acidic and won’t strip or damage your hair like baking soda – one of the most common recommendations we see to get rid of the burnt hair smell.
ACV mixed in with a little shampoo will help prevent additional damage to your hair and seals the cuticle layer to make your hair look shiny and feel strong and soft.
You might already have ACV on hand for other hair and kitchen uses, so whip it out and send that scorched-hair scent packing!
- Mix equal parts ACV and your favorite shampoo together.
- Apply to your scalp and hair, lathering up and concentrating on any areas that smell the worst.
- Rinse thoroughly with cool water and allow your hair to air dry.
If you’re concerned that you’ll just be trading the burnt hair smell for the equally-offensive smell of vinegar, don’t worry. Rinsing thoroughly will remove the last traces of vinegar from your hair and it should have no odor once it dries.
2. Essential Oil Spritz
Diluted essential oils can help mask the unpleasant odor of burnt hair. This remedy won’t remove the source of the smell, but it will make things less stinky while you work on repairing damage to your hair.
It couldn’t be easier to use essential oils to get rid of the burnt hair smell. Here’s what you need to do:
- Fill a clean spray bottle with 4 oz. warm water
- Add 30-40 drops of your favorite pure essential oil(s)
- Shake the bottle well and spray into your hair and scalp to neutralize the odor
We like this home remedy for the burnt hair smell because it’s fun to mix up a custom batch of essential oil water.
You can try any essential oil with a pleasant smell, like lavender, mint, lemon, rosemary, or ylang ylang. You can even make your mixture pull double duty by using oils for hair growth like rosemary, cedarwood, and lavender.
Mix different oils to create a truly personalized scent that you’ll love using. It’s very important to choose essential oils that are pure and safe to use on the skin. Don’t use a fragrance oil or “essential oil” that contains additional ingredients as these can irritate your scalp.
3. Vodka & Water Spritz
If your hair smells burnt, maybe it just needs a drink! You can use vodka and water in a spray bottle to get rid of the burnt smell in your hair.
The alcohol in vodka can be drying on your hair, so make sure to follow up with a deep conditioning treatment afterward if you plan on trying this method.
- Mix equal parts vodka and water in a clean spray bottle
- Spray onto your hair and scalp
- Allow the mixture to evaporate (takes 20-30 minutes)
As the vodka and water evaporates, so should the stinky scorched smell in your hair. Have a cocktail while you’re at it!
4. Baking Soda & Shampoo Cleanse
Let us preface this by saying baking soda is highly alkaline with a pH around 8-9 and can cause damage to your hair (which is more acidic, with a pH around 5.5). It probably isn’t a good thing to use on hair that is already damaged to the point of smelling burnt.
But baking soda is extremely effective, so you may decide the risk is worth it to finally rid yourself of the dreaded burnt hair smell. Use this as a last-ditch effort to get rid of the smell. It shouldn’t be your first line of defense.
- Mix a teaspoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in your normal amount of shampoo
- Apply to your scalp and hair, massaging all over and lathering as much as possible
- Rinse thoroughly with cool water and follow with conditioner to restore lost moisture
If you’ve ever used a container of baking soda in the fridge to keep bad smells at bay, you already know that baking soda is going to be really effective in getting rid of the burnt hair odor.
You can follow up with an ACV rinse to rebalance your scalp and hair pH after using baking soda for less damage to your locks.
How to Avoid the Burnt Hair Smell in the Future
You started by asking “Why does my hair smell burnt?” Now, you’ve learned the reasons and causes behind the burnt hair smell (chemical, heat, or combination damage) as well as ways to get rid of the lingering odor in your hair.
Now, let’s talk about how you can ensure this never, ever happens to your hair again:
- Stop using hot tools for a while. Once you’ve experienced the burnt smell in your hair, it’s time to put away the hot tools for a while. Shoot for at least 2 weeks of air drying with no heat styling to get your hair back on track. Once you’re no longer causing daily damage with heat styling (even if you normally use a heat protectant), you can repair the damage faster and ensure the smell doesn’t come back.
- Push pause on the processing. If you want to prevent the burnt smell from taking up residence in your mane again, you should cut out all processing – colors, highlights, perms, relaxers, or bleaching sessions – for a month or two to give your hair a break. Once you stop causing chemical damage and aren’t using hot tools daily, you can concentrate on repairing the damage and nourishing your hair to make it healthy again.
- Start repairing damage with hair masks. Damage-repairing hair masks contain nourishing moisturizers and strengthening ingredients that replenish and restore damaged hair. Check out our guide to see our top 3 mask picks for damaged hair and learn how to mix up one of your own: Hair Mask for Damaged Hair | 3 Products That Slay & Homemade Recipe. The more damage you can repair, the lower the chance you’ll experience the burnt hair smell again once you start working hot tools and chemical treatments back into your routine.
- Switch to sulfate-free shampoo. Sulfate-free shampoo is ideal for any type of damaged hair. If you want to really curb the damage you’re doing to your strands and get back on the right track to avoiding the burnt hair smell forever, switch to a sulfate-free shampoo and stick to it. Try different varieties until you find one you love. Massage and lather a little more to get the best results with these mild shampoos!
- Switch to damage-reducing tools. If you’re just not about that air dry life, you need to make some changes to your hot tool lineup. Look for higher-end tools that have built-in damage reducing technology, like the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer that adjusts heat to avoid burning or overheating your hair. The Dyson Airwrap only gets to a maximum of 302 degrees Fahrenheit so you can straighten, wave, or curl your hair without high temperatures that cause damage.
- Grab a good heat protectant. Heat protectant prevents heat from scorching your hair and releasing stinky sulfur compounds that smell like burnt hair. Buy a good heat protectant that protects at high temperatures up to 450 degrees. We like sprays because they’re easy to get full hair coverage with. See our favorites here: Best Heat Protectant | Top 5 Picks & Buying Guide.
So, Why Does My Hair Smell Burnt?
As soon as you notice that your hair smells burnt, it’s time to hit the brakes on damaging routines and tools. The burning hair smell is a sure sign of physical damage to your hair strands and you have to address the root cause.
Use one of the 4 odor-eliminating methods above to get rid of the smell right away, then address the root of the problem with the tips above.
Stop using hot tools and avoid chemical processing for a while, start working on repairing the damage with nourishing hair masks, switch to sulfate-free shampoo, and make sure you have a quality heat protectant spray on hand.
Be sure to get these things before you’re ready to start blow drying, curling, or straightening your hair with hot tools again. Special hot tools that prevent damage to your hair are pricey, but well worth it if you’re a daily heat styler or regularly chemically process your hair.
Using these gentler, temperature-controlled tools will allow you to dry and style your hair without smelling that terrible burnt hair smell ever again.
Thankfully, it’s easy to get rid of the burnt hair smell with apple cider vinegar, essential oils, baking soda, or even vodka. But once you’ve inhaled that sickening scorched scent, it will probably live in your memory forever.
Let the offensively odorous memory inspire you to protect your hair from damage as much as possible and take steps to be gentle with your hair care in the future!