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Can Mold Get in Hair? What About Mildew in Hair? The Bottom Line

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If you’ve ever been around mold or mildew, then you know that it can be pretty unpleasant. You know exactly what it smells like, and the sight and smell of it can be pretty off-putting. But can it actually get into your hair?

Currently, no evidence suggests that mold can grow on human hair. However, if your hair has a moldy smell, it may be attributed to other fungal infections like seborrheic dermatitis or Malassezia yeast. These infections can lead to symptoms such as a greasy scalp, itching, and irritation.

So, how can you safeguard your hair from these mildew and mold problems? Let’s explore the details of mold and mildew in relation to hair with the guidance of my trusted friend, an expert in hair science with a PhD in Chemistry. This will offer you a more comprehensive insight into the matter.

Understanding Mold, Mildew, and Scalp Microorganisms

Mold and mildew are typically greenish-yellow, soft substances that tend to develop on spoiled food or leftover fruits. These growths are a type of fungi that belong to a specific group of microorganisms.

In household environments, mold often thrives on walls and in cabinets, particularly in humid or tropical conditions. This can result in unpleasant odors in the affected areas and may render food items unsafe for consumption. Mold spores can also cling to the skin’s surface, particularly in exposed areas like the eyes, arms, scalp, and hair.

Fungi reproduce by releasing spores, which are tiny seeds that can be carried through the air. The parent organisms produce These spores in large quantities and can be found nearly everywhere.

Antimicrobial agents—chemicals designed to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms—are commonly used in food preservatives and household cleaners to prevent their proliferation. These agents are crucial in preventing the spread of mold and mildew.

Did you know that the human scalp harbors millions of microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi? Scientific studies have found the growth of these microorganisms on the human scalp surface.

Wiley Online Library

Malassezia and Scalp Health

Malassezia is a specific example of a fungus commonly found on the scalps of adults, and it can contribute to issues like dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis.1,2

When left unchecked, the rapid proliferation of these fungi can result in scalp yeast infections and seborrheic dermatitis. This fungal growth on the scalp or hair often leads to an unpleasant odor or a hair smell. The extent of hair and scalp damage from mold exposure and its potential reversibility depends on the continued activity of hair follicles.

So, how do these fungi establish themselves on the scalp’s surface, and what are the consequences of hosting these microorganisms? Most importantly, how can we prevent their growth or manage their colonies?

To provide comprehensive answers to these questions, let’s delve into the science behind it.

Understanding Scalp Microorganisms and Fungus Growth

Image of the scalp surface

The human scalp, a region with sebaceous glands distributed throughout, is naturally moist due to the secretion of sebum. This secretion, consisting mainly of water, minerals, and lipids, creates an ideal environment for microorganisms to thrive.

Causes of Fungus Growth on the Scalp

Fungus spores proliferate rapidly by utilizing the nutrients found in sebum, the oily substance that coats the scalp and runs down the hair. Several factors contribute to fungus growth on the scalp surface, including:

  1. Moist Scalp and Hair: Keeping the scalp and hair consistently moistened.
  2. Excessive Sebum Secretion: Overproduction of sebum.
  3. Poor Scalp Hygiene: Maintaining an unhygienic scalp.
  4. Covering Moist Hair: Keeping moistened hair tied up or covered with a cap.

It’s important to note that the fungus found on spoiled food, fruits, or household walls is not the same as the fungus that grows on the scalp. While both belong to the fungi family, they are scientifically distinct, with different reproduction mechanisms and outcomes.

Recognizing Mold and Mildew in Your Hair

patches of yellowish material on the scalp

Identifying fungus growth in your hair involves observing specific signs and outcomes, including:

  1. Unpleasant Odor: A noticeable mal-odor emanating from your hair and scalp.
  2. Yellowish Patches: A thorough examination of the scalp may reveal patches of yellowish material.
  3. Dandruff Formation: In cases of severe growth, sac-like flakes referred to as “dandruff” may develop.
  4. Skin Infections: Over time, severe dandruff can become a skin infection.

Understanding the Causes of a Smelly Scalp

A smelly scalp can be attributed to the feeding behavior of fungi, which consume nutrients from sebum and dead skin cells. This feeding process triggers a sequence of alterations on the scalp’s surface, including the oxidation or degradation of minerals, proteins, and lipids.

As a result of these chemical transformations, numerous new molecules are produced, leading to the development of an unpleasant odor or a smelly scalp. This odor is akin to the musty scent associated with mold on food. Recognizing the underlying causes of a smelly scalp can help address this issue effectively.

Assessing Potential Health Risks of Mold and Mildew on the Scalp

Understanding whether mold or mildew in the scalp is dangerous involves considering several factors:

Balanced Microbiome: A healthy scalp maintains a balanced microbiome, where microorganisms coexist harmlessly. In this state of equilibrium, scalp microorganisms do not pose a threat.

Impact of Overgrowth: However, an excessive overgrowth of microorganisms can disrupt the biological and chemical environment of the scalp. This disruption can lead to discomfort, particularly when the hair becomes smelly. In severe cases, it can result in the development of dandruff, causing scalp sensitivity, red patches, and itchiness.

Infectious Potential: Extreme cases of microbial overgrowth may progress to become infectious. It’s important to note that fungi spores cannot penetrate the human body; they remain on the surface. Therefore, they do not pose a direct danger to the human body.

While mold or mildew on the scalp may not inherently endanger health, addressing discomfort and potential issues caused by an overgrowth is essential for scalp health and overall well-being.

6 Ways to Prevent Fungal Growth on the Scalp

Maintaining a healthy scalp and preventing fungal growth is crucial for overall hair health. Here are some key steps to prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms on your scalp:

1. Cleansing

Regularly wash your hair and scalp with a suitable antifungal shampoo, including clarifying shampoo. During washing, gently massage the shampoo into your scalp and hair to ensure the removal of residue, product buildup, and dandruff. Follow up with a moisturizing conditioner to detangle your hair.

2. Proper Drying

After washing your hair, always ensure it is thoroughly dried. Leaving wet hair fibers can accelerate fungal growth, especially if you tie up wet hair for extended periods or overnight.

3. Post-Exercise Care

Sweaty and wet hair under a cap can create an ideal fungus environment. If you exercise regularly and notice increased scalp sweat and oiliness, showering immediately after your workout is important. This cleanses your body and helps restore the microbiome balance on your scalp. If immediate washing isn’t possible, you don’t want to allow all that excess moisture to sit on your damp hair for a long time; instead, use a blow dryer to dry your hair, a recommendation from my daughter’s dermatologist.

4. Cap Hygiene

To prevent the spread of mold and mildew or a musty smell, especially if you wear a cap during workouts, consider spraying it with Lysol. This simple step, provided by my daughter’s dermatologist, serves as an effective way to uphold cleanliness and reduce the chances of microbial growth.

5. Anti-Microbial Products

Many hair cleansing and conditioning products contain ingredients to inhibit microbial growth on the scalp and hair. Some examples include anti-itch shampoos designed for sensitive scalps.3 These formulations often include antifungal properties or active ingredients such as zinc pyridine, salicylic acid, sulfur, and selenium sulfide.

6. Natural Oils

Plant-sourced oils are a great way to combat fungal growth in the affected area. Tea tree oil is known for its anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. Due to its high sterol content, sesame seed oil is effective against oxidation. Sunflower oil and olive oil, rich in tocopherols (vitamin E derivatives), provide broad protection against bacteria and fungi.

The good news is that by following these preventive measures, including massaging these oils into the scalp to increase blood flow and maintaining good scalp hygiene, you can minimize the risk of fungal growth and ensure the health of your hair and scalp.

Below, you’ll find a list of my preferred oils:

Organic Sesame Seed Oil
$14.78 ($1.85 / Fl Oz)
Buy at Amazon Buy at Heather Loraine
03/20/2024 12:03 pm GMT

Pura D'Or ORGANIC Sunflower Seed Oil
$15.99 $14.39 ($0.90 / Fl Oz)
Buy at Amazon Buy at Pura D'Or
03/20/2024 12:06 pm GMT

Caring for Braids and Extensions

Maintaining a healthy scalp and strong hair fibers is essential when you style your hair with braids or extensions. Here’s how to protect and care for them:


  • Avoid leaving braids tied up and soaked for too long.
  • Use a co-wash to clean the scalp gently without disturbing your braids.
  • Opt for intensely moisturizing products with humectants and emollients.
  • Consider natural butters or oils to keep your hair well-lubricated and conditioned.

Hair Extensions:

  • Follow your stylist’s advice on product treatment.
  • Regularly massage it with oils and emollients to prevent sweat and sebum buildup on the scalp.

For a visual guide on how to cleanse your scalp without a full shower, check out this helpful video:

Revitalize Your Scalp with Sea Breeze Spray

Maintaining a healthy scalp is paramount for those sporting braids, locs, or sewn-in hair extensions. Consider incorporating Sea Breeze spray into your routine for a revitalizing scalp cleanse.

This gentle yet effective spray is designed to eliminate excess oils and exfoliates dead skin cells from the scalp, resulting in a more thorough cleanse and healthier-looking hair.

Here’s a simple step to enhance your scalp care routine: Before shampooing, indulge in a professional scalp treatment or massage with Sea Breeze astringent. Your scalp will thank you for it!

Sea Breeze Astringent
$18.58 $15.90 ($0.50 / Ounce)
Buy at Amazon Buy at Ensley Beauty Supply
03/23/2024 07:10 pm GMT

3 Tips to Remove Mildew Smell from Sew-Ins

If you’re short on time, here’s a summary of the video below:

Tip #1 – First step – Wash hair with a sulfate shampoo for deep cleaning.

Tip #2 – Deep condition your hair and scalp with coconut oil and tea tree oil anti-fungal properties.

Tip #3 – Apply diluted anti-fungal essential oils to your scalp and hair before styling.

Watch the YouTube video guide on eliminating mildew from sew-ins:

YouTube video
Video credit: Breanna Rutter

Best Shampoo for Mildew and Mold In Hair

Regular shampooing is the best way to maintain a clean and healthy scalp and hair. When choosing a shampoo, choose sulfate-free options incorporating antimicrobial ingredients.

One excellent choice in the market is Bounce Curl’s sulfate-free shampoo, enriched with therapeutic essential oils sourced from plants known for their potent antimicrobial properties.

Two effective clarifying shampoos to consider are:

  1. Bounce Curl Gentle Clarifying Shampoo
  2. Righteous Roots Clarifying Shampoo

These formulations include beneficial ingredients like bergamot oil, grapefruit seed oil, orange seed oil, and orange peel oils. These citrus-based oils provide a refreshing cleanse and contribute to overall scalp health.


Mold and mildew, both types of fungi, can thrive on the human scalp when exposed to moisture and humidity. Poor hygiene and leaving hair wet for extended periods are common factors contributing to fungal growth, making it a potential mold problem.

The presence of these fungi on the scalp and hair can result in an unpleasant odor, yellowish patches, itching, and dandruff. Maintaining hygiene is crucial to prevent mold growth and promote health for the scalp and hair.

Regular scalp and hair washing helps eliminate excess sebum, lipids, and debris. Additionally, the use of herbal oils, natural butter, and essential oils can be effective in inhibiting mold growth.

If you experience recurring fungal growth on your scalp, consult your healthcare provider. Underlying conditions, such as a weakened immune system, may require attention. Always seek guidance from your doctor for the best treatment options before attempting any home remedies to ensure they are safe and suitable for your specific health needs.


  1. Loing, E.; Lamarque, E.; Borel, M., New targets in the battle against dandruffJ. Cosmet. Sci. 2017, 68 (1), 107-113. ↩︎
  2. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 1986. ↩︎
  3. Sanfilippo, A.; English, J., An overview of medicated shampoos used in dandruff treatmentP AND T 2006, 31 (7), 396. ↩︎


I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

My mission? To empower others with the tools to restore, and maintain healthy hair, and celebrate the hair they were born with!

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