Why Does Burnt Hair Smell So Bad?

burnt-hairIn an unfortunate turn of events, you reach over a candle and singe the hair on your arm. Or perhaps your curling iron starts to smoke as it burns a section of the hair on your head (as it did in the case of this young girl, whose hair trouble went viral on YouTube last year). Once you’re over the initial shock of the unexpected fire hazard, what lingers is the distinct, sharp odor of burnt hair. Thanks to reader MuradResurgence, the weasel decided to explore the cause of this funky phenomenon.

The Chemistry of Burnt Hair

Human hair is made up of keratin, a fibrous structural protein. Keratin is also a main component in skin and nails. This particular type of keratin is alpha keratin or a-keratin, and it contains significant amounts of cysteine, which acts as a cross link for keratin’s polypeptide chains. This cysteine essentially works as the glue that holds the structural elements of keratin together. As a  sulfhydryl group, or an amino acid containing sulfur, cysteine is ultimately to blame for the foul smell of burnt hair.

Sulfur: The Stinky Element

There are many well-known smells of the world that can blame sulfur for their notoriety. The stench of odorized natural gas (which without the addition sulfide to aid in its detection is naturally odorless), skunk spray, and garlic can all blame their sulfuric compounds. Perhaps the most famous form of odorous sulfur is that which is attributed to rotting eggs. But give sulfur a break. Not all forms of sulfur stink. With enough oxygen, sulfur can take the form of sulfate, which is generally not as offensive as its hydrogen sulfide counterpart, the unfortunately stinky variety found in hair.

Activating the Smell

With all this chemistry in mind, the next most logical question might ask why hair doesn’t always produce that icky, sulfuric smell if its key components remain the same whether wet, dry, or burnt? Here we must refer to another of the weasel’s articles on smelly smells, “What is With That Wet Dog Smell?” to explain the basics of your olfactory system and concentrations of smelly molecules in the air. Similar to the root causes of wet dog smell, the noxious smell of burnt hair must be activated. In dogs, water acts as the amplifier of the smell known as wet dog, whereas heat releases the noxious sulfuric smell of burnt hair.  And because of these smelly sulfuric compound’s lack of volatility (meaning that they are relatively slow moving through the air), burnt hair smell can be one of those lingering smells – clinging to the nostrils even after the culprit has been discarded.

Beyond it’s chemical components, one might also argue that our extreme sensitivity to the smell of burning or burnt hair is a result of some survival  mechanism – alerting us immediately to the danger posed to our safety. It’s an interesting concept. Either way, we’d suggest being careful around fire and women’s hair styling devices, if only to avoid the smell.


5 thoughts on “Why Does Burnt Hair Smell So Bad?”

    • Hey Jennifer,

      Burnt hair certainly can smell toxic, but shouldn’t cause any health problems being around it. That said, we always considered the full picture, so if the burning hair is also saturated with chemicals like bleach or ammonia, that might be a slightly different story. While there aren’t many studies about the potential toxicity of inhaling the smell of burnt hair day in and day out, we’d have to assume that there would be a heck of a lot more sick hair stylists if it caused major health problems!

      Keep pondering!

      -The Ponder Weasel Team

  1. What can I do to neutralize the smell of a burning hair? My project was to make the hair mixed with potassium and to burn it so it would be an insect repellant. Needless to say it didn’t work!

    • Hi Jason,

      It all depends on what still smells like burnt hair! For smells in fabric, like carpet or upholstery, you can try the baking soda method: just dust the fabric that smells.(make sure it’s dry first!) and leave for a day or so to allow the baking soda to neutralize the odor. After a day or so, vacuum up the baking soda. You can repeat, if necessary. This works for clothes, too!

      For smells on hard surfaces like countertops, we like using plain old vinegar diluted with a little water in a spray bottle. Just spritz the surface, leave for a minute or so, then wipe away. Vinegar definitely has its own pungent smell, but that dissipates!

      Lastly, if the smell is just lingering in the air, you can make this quick natural air freshener: just combine 2 cups of water, 1 Tbsp white vinegar, 1 Tbsp baking soda, and about 10 drops of your favorite essential oil (we like citrus or lavender) in a spray bottle and spray away.

      Let us know how it goes – and ponder on!

      -The Ponder Weasel Team

  2. So I have question, not necessarily know if you can answer it.. but my hair when it’s burnt doesn’t really smell like burning hair anymore, can’t explain the smell, it’s a mixture of cysteine and something else which I can’t put my finger on.. and I know it’s definitely not the shampoo I’ve been using since I’ve been using an organic shampoo for years, kinda similar to a mixture of plastic and candle wax
    Might not be getting the smell right however, but it certainly has been making me cough a hella lot..


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