Why Does My Hair Smell Burnt: Tips to Remove and Prevent This Pesky Smell

Have you ever stepped out of the shower and noticed a weird smell that you later realized was your hair? So you start to wonder ‘why does my hair smell burnt’?

Let’s go through the reasons why you may notice a burning hair smell, how to get rid of it, and how to prevent it.

burnt hair

Why Does Hair Smell Burnt

If you keep smelling burnt hair, then you probably have burnt your hair. If your hair smells burnt even after washing, then you are using heat tools like curling irons and straighteners way too much. Make sure you cut down heat exposure and use heat protectant sprays.

Learning the basics

Understanding the answer to the question of why your hair smells burnt comes down to understanding the structure of the hair. All the strands of your hair are made up of three layers.

The outer layer is the cuticle and is formed with cells that are like shingles and overlap each other. Naturally, these cells are flat yet flexible as this is the protective layer. However, if the cuticle cells are raised, then this makes hair feel and look frizzy.

Then comes the middle layer, or the cortex, which makes up most of the hair strand. It contains melanin which is the pigment that decides the color of your hair, and keratin which decides the shape.

hair structure

The keratin proteins are bound to water molecules which are essential for their function. Both of these proteins together make up chemical chains that retain moisture and give your hair shine.

These chains contain two types of bonds, disulfide, and hydrogen. Disulfide bonds are strong and can only be broken with chemicals (like relaxers) that permanently alter the shape of the hair. Hydrogen bonds can easily be broken and formed with heat or water, which happens when curly hair turns straight when it’s wet.

The innermost layer is the medulla, which is an extra strengthening layer for hair, but the thickness of this hair depends on the hair type.

How heat affects your hair

By constantly using heat to style hair, you have probably altered the hydrogen bonds in your hair cortex and temporarily changed the shape of your hair.

However, the heat damage does not stop there. Constantly using heat on your hair leads to the complete evaporation of moisture, basically drying it all out.

When you notice hair smells burnt after curling or straightening, then you have affected the other layers as well. Moisture is essential for the cuticle and the cortex. Without the moisture, you risk losing your hair’s strength, texture, and elasticity.

Drybar flat iron

The cuticle cannot function as a protective layer once it’s damaged since the shingles raise up and create pores providing full access to the innermost layer of hair. So the heat can penetrate further and cause more damage.

Heat damage can also lead to oxidizing of hair pigment, both on natural and dyed hair. This would lead to the fading of hair color, especially if it was already damaged. If your dyed hair smells burnt even after washing, then this may be the culprit of why you need a redye so often.

What does burnt hair smell like?

A burning hair smell is hard to not notice. Burning hair releases a sulfurous odor mainly due to the keratin in the hair. Keratin contains a lot of cysteines, which is an amino acid that contains sulfur.

Hooves, nails, and tortoise shells also contain keratin, so they also smell like burnt hair when set on fire. The smell of burnt hair is not at all pleasant and will stay in the nostrils for days.

How long does burnt hair smell last?

The answer to the question of how long burnt hair smell lasts depends on the level of heat damage. If you only slightly charred the exterior layer of the hair, then the smell should go away in a day or two.

However, if the heat has penetrated the innermost layers of the hair and damaged the cuticle and medulla, then there is a chance the smell won’t go away at all or until you cut off most of the burnt hair.

burnt blonde hair

How to Get Rid of Burnt Hair Smell

Smelling burnt hair constantly can be annoying, and if the damage isn’t too extensive, there are a few ways to get rid of the odor.

Baking Soda Wash

Baking soda or sodium bicarbonate is an ingredient that is a great odor neutralizer. When used correctly, it will get rid of most household and hair smell.

If your hair smells burnt when wet, a DIY solution may be to add a teaspoon of baking soda to your shampoo. Mix the shampoo bottle well and wash your hair as you normally would.

If the smell isn’t gone, you can keep repeating the process a few more times. Make sure you don’t overdo it, as baking soda can be slightly drying, and always follow up with conditioner.

Oil Masks

Essential oils like lavender, tea tree, rosemary, and lemongrass can be great at removing and masking odors. You can add about 10-15 drops of essential oils into a spray bottle with water and mix well. Spray it on your hair and make sure the mixture is covering all the hair.

You can also add essential oil drops to a carrier oil like coconut or olive and lather it all over your hair. Using a large amount will function like a mask that has to be washed out and can be left overnight. You may also use it as a leave-in treatment, but make sure you aren’t using too much otherwise, your hair will get oily and greasy.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is a great odor-neutralizer that also starts repairing heat damage. You can use an aloe vera mask or gel from a store, but you can also create your own from an aloe vera leaf.

If you decide to do it yourself, make sure to add a few tablespoons of olive oil. You can also use some essential oils like rosemary for fragrance. Cover your hair with the mask and let it sit for about 20-30 minutes, and rinse out well.

Snip snip

hairstylist cutting burnt hair

If you have tried oils and DIY masks, but you are still smelling burnt hair, then the damage may be too extensive to remove. Unfortunately, your only option is to cut off some of the hair.

You don’t need to get a buzzcut or anything drastic, but it’s recommended to snip off a large chunk of the ends. These parts are the most prone to heat damage, and you were probably due for a cut anyway. If you cut off the ends of the hair and continue to take care of it with masks and treatments, you should be good to go in no time!

How to Prevent Burnt Hair Smell

Before we end our discussion today, let’s quickly cover how to prevent the burnt hair smell from appearing in the first place so you won’t have to go through all the trouble of getting rid of it.

Use lower heat settings

The cause of burnt hair is heat, and heat is also the main culprit in general hair damage as well. Most people will use high heat to style hair faster, which is very bad for hair. Instead, start styling hair early and invest more time in your hair.

Take breaks to let the tool and your hair cool. Separate the hair into smaller sections when styling so you target all the hair with brief periods of heat instead of exposing the same parts to a lot of heat. In fact, try avoiding heat tools in general, but if you can’t, then try to use the lowest heat settings.

Use heat protectant

Heat protectant sprays and creams reduce hair heating up too much and protect the layers of your hair. Apply the product onto your hair when it’s damp or dry before you go in with curling wands, irons, and other tools.

Make sure your comb through your hair when the product is on to make sure it’s applied evenly.

Use hair masks frequently

Hair masks and oils are designed to replenish and moisturize hair. If your hair is always in good condition, it will be less prone to heat damage when you do use these tools.

Masks with vitamin E will promote hair growth while also protecting it from heat damage. You can buy hair masks in stores or even make your own with household ingredients.

hair conditioner

Also read:

FAQs

Why does my hair smell burnt even after I wash it?

If the burnt smell is persistent, then the layers of your hair are seriously heat damaged. You can try using masks to bring it back to life, but if it’s not going away, then it’s time to cut some of it off.

How do you know if your hair is burnt?

If the general quality of your hair has gone down, then you probably have heat damage. Frizziness, dull hair, lack of shine, split ends, and large knots are all signs of burnt hair.

How to get burnt hair smell out of flat iron?

It can be hard to get the burnt hair smell out of a flat iron. Try cleaning it baking soda and only use it for short periods of time. Coating your hair with a heat protectant can prevent hair burning, which will also prevent the smell from sticking to your flat iron.

Summary

If you style your hair frequently, heat damage is unavoidable. But you can try to minimize the damage by using heat protectants, masks, and low settings. Are there any tricks you have to remove the burnt hair smell? Let us hair enthusiasts know down below!

Ally is a professional hairstylist with more than 6 years of experience, but hair has been her passion since early childhood. Here, at Hair Spies, she blogs about all things hairdressing, hair tools, and everyday hair care. Read more about Allyson here.

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