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Everything You Need to Know About Removing Unwanted Odors from Hair

If just one whiff of a smoky bonfire leaves a pungent odor behind on your hair, you’ll want to read this. Learn why smells stick in your strands, how to remove them, and ways you can lessen these occurrences in the future.

On a recent beach getaway, my friends and I were looking for something to do at night after the day’s warm temperatures took a nosedive. An open bonfire was blazing at the hotel nearby, and the toasty smoke was calling our names. The only problem? We all washed our hair beforehand and dreaded the aftermath of smelling like a campfire for days on end. So instead, we pulled out our sweatshirts and headed to the local watering hole to grab a few spiked seltzers.

This minor inconvenience had me wondering: How in the world do you release trapped odors from your hair? All it takes is one minute of exposure to a cigarette or a barbeque, and my strands soak up their smoky odors like a sponge. I set out to discover the reason behind this and if there was a way to keep it from happening. Whether you have a blunt bob or lavish princess-length hair, keep scrolling to discover the secrets to fresher hair.

Good hair day by @kjb_hair.

Why do smells linger in my hair?

Why do I walk into a bakery for a coffee and leave reeking of a pastry while someone else can sit in a cigar lounge for an hour and smell like floral shampoo? Your mane’s ability to retain and absorb moisture and odor all boils down to hair porosity. There are three types of hair porosities: low, high, or medium, and each one makes a difference in whether scents will stick after exposure.

Low Porosity Hair

Low porosity hair's cuticle (or outer layer) lays flat and tightly packed together. While this makes it hard for water or hair care products to penetrate the hair, it also means that strands are more resistant to soaking up odors from the air.

Medium Porosity Hair

A sweet spot between high and low, medium porosity hair is the easiest to manage since it holds onto moisture, responds well to hair products, and holds up to heat and coloring services. When it comes to smells, medium porosity hair tends to absorb them and then release them just as easily.

High Porosity

Last but not least, high porosity hair is the most susceptible to drawing and retaining unwanted odors from the environment. It’s often characterized by a dry, rough, or damaged cuticle and is more common in curly and wavy hair types. The open, frayed cuticle is why high porosity strands latch onto aromas and hold onto it for dear life (raises hand).

Pro tip: Redken artist Laura Frazier says there’s a quick (but not foolproof) way to determine your hair’s porosity: “Get a clear glass of water and a strand of your hair—preferably cleansed—and place the strand in the glass. If it floats it’s low porosity. If it floats at first then slowly begins to sink or suspend then it’s medium porosity. If it starts to sink immediately then the hair is very porous [and is therefore high porosity].”

Fresh Affair Refreshing Dry Shampoo

Fresh Affair Refreshing Dry Shampoo

A fine fragrance root and hair refreshing dry shampoo.

One size available
5.3 oz

How can I make my hair smell good without washing it?

Now that you know why hair can absorb smells in the first place, you’re probably wondering what to do about it. Here are a few of the top tricks that don’t require a hop in the shower.

Blast it with cool air.

Cool air from your blow dryer can help release bad odors trapped within the hair. Working in sections, blast cool air onto your mane for about five minutes total.

Rub it with a dryer sheet.

Dryer sheets work wonders to freshen up your clothes, and their odor-neutralizing compounds can revive odor-plagued hair, too. Rub a dryer sheet straight over the hair, or press it over your hair brush and sweep it through hair to ensure you’re infusing the fresh scent into tresses from every angle.

Use a scented dry shampoo.

Dry shampoos have come a long way from the chalky, chemical-smelling formulas of years past. Pick up one like Kérastase Fresh Affair Refreshing Dry Shampoo. It’s formulated with vitamin E and rice starch and a luxurious, long-lasting fragrance to help fade the memories of last night’s bonfire.

Pro tip: In addition to spritizing it onto your scalp, flip your head over and give a through spray all over the roots, then work it through the mid-shaft to ends of hair. Be sure to brush it through to help it completely absorb.

Is it OK to spray perfume in your hair?

Your favorite perfume may give your smelly hair a short-term pick-me-up, but since the alcohol in the formula is not made for hair, it can cause long-term damage like dryness. Instead, we recommend scented dry shampoo or hair perfumes that are formulated to be free of strand-stripping ingredients.

How can I prevent future odors from sticking?

Much like reversing sun damage on the skin, the best way to prevent odors from sticking in the hair is by learning how to avoid them in the first place. Luckily, you can do a few things to change the porosity of medium to high hair to reduce its chances of lapping up odors.

Hydrate your mane.

Adding moisture to dry hair helps lay down the cuticle, thereby making it harder for unpleasant smells to attach to your hair. We recommend using a hydrating shampoo and conditioner duo, like Biolage Professional’s Ultra Hydra Source Shampoo and Conditioner. Formulated with the moisture-retaining aloe plant that never seems to dry, this ultra-nourishing duo helps optimize moisture balance in parched strands, preventing future breakage, frizz, and flyaways.

Clean your hair brush.

If you run your hair brush through your strands after exposure to a pungent smell, the molecules can get lodged in your hair brush and be redistributed onto your locks with every pass. Depending on your hair brush type, you can soak it in soapy water or dip it into a sulfate-free shampoo to rid the small yet smelly particles.

Reduce your heat styling.

Heat styling—especially without proper protection—is one of the biggest culprits contributing to high porosity hair. The extreme temperatures can create gaps and tears in hair’s cuticle, forcing it to stay open so that odors cling to tresses. Therefore, we recommend cutting down on hot tools or air drying hair as often as possible.

When you do pick up your styling tools, apply a good heat protectant spray throughout your hair. Biolage Professional’s BlowDry Glotion is a long-wear heat primer that provides thermal protection up to 450 degrees.

Wrap your hair.

Not just useful for sleeping, a hair wrap can also keep stenches from latching onto your locks—and they look cute while doing it (read our how-to guide here). Want to wear your hair out to show off your gorgeous hue? Consider a tight bun, which keeps hair tightly wound together and less exposed to the air.

Use a clarifying shampoo.

OK, admittedly, this is more of an aftercare measure rather than a preventative one, but a shampoo like Kérastase Specifique Bain Divalent Shampoo deeply cleanses and purifies the scalp by removing excess oil and odor. Ingredients like amino acids and vitamin B6 work to nourish your strands and leave you with softer, shinier hair. For extra insurance against lingering aromas, give hair a double cleanse.

Equipped with the knowledge to banish troublesome odors from your hair, you’ll never have to pass up the opportunity to sit beside a cozy campfire ever again. Now get out there and enjoy the great outdoors!

Looking for more ways to keep hair fresh? has all of the professional products you need to make it happen.

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