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London - After a night out at a smokey party, or a long run on a hot and humid day, it’s quite normal to find that your hair gets, well ... a bit pongy. It’s nothing that a proper shampoo and rinse can’t solve.
But what if, despite washing your hair every day - and even minutes after stepping out of the shower - your hair still seems to be giving off a nasty niff?
You could be suffering from what experts have dubbed Smelly Hair Syndrome (SHS) - a condition which can leave the sufferer both acutely embarrassed and at a loss for either the cause or the cure.
The symptoms, though, are all too apparent. Anecdotal reports in online forums set up to assist the afflicted describe the odour as ranging from “old sponge” and “wet dog” to “mildew” - but almost all sufferers report an unpleasant, sour smell that might diminish with regular washing but never goes away entirely.
Some sufferers say it’s such a severe problem that work colleagues comment on it, while others feel so embarrassed about it that it affects their social life and their ability to form relationships.
Crucially, SHS isn’t related to having dirty hair, and it seems to be something that can affect people of any age and which can develop almost overnight.
So, what exactly does cause it? And what can you do if you’re a SHS sufferer? Different trichologists (hair and scalp scientists) have different theories. “There’s a sebaceous gland attached to each hair follicle and that produces oil,” says Glenn Lyons, clinical director at the Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic. “The more oily your hair, the more prone it is to picking up environmental pollutants, such as smoke, cooking odours and other strong scents, that will make it smell.
“The scalp is densely populated not only with these oil glands, but also with sweat glands. In the same way that, regardless of what deodorant they use, some people are more prone to sweating and body odour than others, so too you’ll find that some people’s scalps are more prone to oiliness and odour than others.”
Glenn points out that people with certain types of hair may also find themselves more susceptible.
“If you have quite coarse hair, it will soak up a lot of the oil,” he explains. “But people with finer hair may find that the oil - and therefore the odour - is more of a problem. Equally, if you tend to use a lot of products, such as serums or mousses, in your hair, these, like oil, will attract odours and lock them into the hair.”
Even if you’ve never suffered from smelly hair in the past, changes in hormone levels can cause a problem, seemingly overnight.
“How much oil your scalp produces is partly governed by hormones known as androgens,” says Glenn. “If you’re under a lot of stress, this will change the levels of the adrenal hormones in your body and can have a knock-on effect on androgen levels, which can lead to over-production of oil, and potentially smelly hair.”
And in rare circumstances, an androgen-secreting tumour in the pituitary gland, the adrenal glands or the ovaries may bring about the hormone imbalance.
But in this instance you would expect to have other symptoms, such as hirsutism (excess hair) or acne, as well as smelly hair and an excess production of sebum, and a GP would refer you to an endocrinologist.
Assuming you’ve ruled out any hormonal imbalance, Glenn Lyons suggests that the best “cure” for SHS is to wash hair regularly - twice a day if necessary - with a gentle shampoo that will cleanse without stripping the hair.
Because, as with skin, if you use a product that is too astringent, it can cause over-production of sebum. He also says you should avoid using conditioner anywhere near the roots of the hair, as this will exacerbate the oiliness and thus the smell.
However, Iain Sallis, who runs a number of trichology clinics around the UK, has a different view on SHS.
“There can be many reasons why hair smells,” he says. “An excess of sebum is certainly one of them, but people who have a diet that is rich in pungent foods, such as spicy curry, or oily fish, may also find that their scalp and hair give off a distinctive odour.
“However, there is another, rarer, condition that causes that lingering sour smell that people find so hard to shake, and it’s actually a fungal infection. There are two types - endothrix infections which attack the inside of the hair, and ectothrix infections that attack the outside of the hair.”
“These types of fungi are known as zoophilic fungi, as they grow naturally on animals. And it’s close contact with animals, such as cats, dogs and horses, which can be the initial cause of the infection, as fine spores from the fungus are transferred from the animal to the human.”
Once infected, shared combs or brushes can transfer the fungus from person to person.
Warm, damp conditions are the perfect environment for the fungi to breed in, which is why frequent hair-washing alone won’t solve the problem - and may even seem to make it worse - and why you might be able to smell that sour smell the minute you step out of the shower.
If you suspect you’re suffering from a fungal infection, a trichologist should be able to confirm it by taking a sample of hair or scalp skin, which is sent away to a laboratory to be cultured.
Once you know a fungal infection is what’s causing SHS, a double-pronged attack is often the best way to treat it, attacking it internally and externally.
An anti-fungal pill will be prescribed and that should be used alongside an anti-fungal shampoo. Iain Sallis suggests coal tar shampoos, such as Alphosyl or T-Gel. But don’t expect things to change over night.
He says: “Sometimes the fungus is so deeply embedded in the hair that it can’t actually be killed off in this way. The hair itself is dead so, unlike live tissue, doesn’t contain any white blood cells that can help it fend off an infection itself.
“As a result, in really serious cases patients will need to continue taking anti-fungal medication and using anti-fungal shampoos over a period of time.
“What this does is ensure that any new hair is free of the fungus. But the patient won’t be entirely free of the infection until every infected hair has naturally fallen out of the scalp.”
Of course, there are hair refreshers, fragrances and deodorants you can use to disguise the smell while you’re waiting for the treatment to be effective.
Try refreshing hair throughout the day with a dry shampoo - the original Batiste has a zesty scent that should help mask unpleasant smells.
Or find out if your favourite fragrance comes in a format especially for hair - Tom Ford Black Orchid and Chanel No. 5 are among the brands that offer a special hair perfume product.
After all, eau de wet dog is never going to make for anything other than a bad hair day, is it? - Daily Mail