Bad smells behind the ears are known to occur for numerous reasons. Most often, the bad smell is associated with a cheese-like odor and can be detected when you rub a finger over the back of the ears or wipe them clean with a cloth. The unpleasant smell behind the ears can be difficult to get rid of sometimes and requires for you to identify what is causing the stinky odor in the first place. Causes are diverse, but poor hygiene is the main issue behind bad, cheese-like smells behind ears.
When do people notice the back of their ears smell bad?
Most people become aware of the stinky smell behind their ears when they rub the back of the ears with their hand, wipe them with a cloth or a wet wipe then smell it, when they take their glasses off or out of the blue, without even touching the area, when a breeze of air brings the smell forward. The intensity of the smell varies from person to person. There are people that find the odor smelly, unpleasant, just weird, while others compare it to stinky Swiss cheese or parmesan cheese. A bad cheese smell behind the ears can occur in babies, children and adults of all ages.
What causes the stinky cheese smell behind ears?
A cheese smell behind the ears can be caused by so many things and it is possible for more than one causing factor to be responsible for the smell. For example, a tendency to sweat more can cause an unpleasant odor, but a bacterial infection can amplify the smell to the point it becomes absolutely stinky. Here are the top 11 causes for bad, cheese smells behind ears:
Poor hygiene of the ears
Not washing behind the ears or washing infrequently can cause a bad smell behind the ears to develop. Some people don’t like to wash very often, others neglect to wash thoroughly and dead cells, dust, dirt, bacteria, sweat all accumulate and cause a smelly odor that can become more intense the longer you don’t wash. Poor hygiene of the ears also increases risks of outer and inner ear infections.
Having long hair
Long hair tends to cover the ears entirely and traps dust, dirt, pollutants, hair products, sweat, scalp oils and dead skin cells. It prevents air from circulating which causes the sweat gland behind the ears to increase perspiration. Long hair also creates a moist environment that encourages bacteria growth behind the ears, especially when it’s hot outside and you’re wearing your hair down or you’re exercising or sleeping and sweating. Thirdly, long hair gets dirty fast and cleaning it is not easy. People with long hair have the habit to constantly touch their hair with their hands, put their hair behind their ears or use hair care products that stimulate oil production and accumulate even more dirt, dust etc.
Overactive sweat glands
Sometimes, a bad smell behind the ears is a sign of too much sweating. Some people sweat a lot even when they are sitting and doing nothing. Because sweat contains toxins our body eliminates and creates a moist environment behind the ears, it encourages bacteria growth, fungal infections and a bad smell behind the ears. People that sweat a lot often describe the odor behind their ears as a foul, stinky cheese or armpit smell.
Dry skin, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff
Skin conditions cause itching and dry, flaky skin. The more you scratch, the more damage you do to the skin and the more dead skin cells fall off and eventually accumulate, blocking pores and resulting in a bad smell. The need to scratch behind the ears also puts you at risk for bacterial or fungal infections which can amplify the bad smell.
Many people suffering from stress experience inexplicable itching and tend to develop unhealthy habits such as scratching. Scratching behind the ears can transfer bacteria and other germs to the area and cause infections and a cheese-like smell. Stress also worsens eczema and even dandruff, encouraging the development of a bad smell behind the ears or where the side of the face meets the hair.
A bacterial infection
One of the most common causes of cheese-like smells behind the ears is a bacterial infection. Bacteria can easily be transferred behind the ears by scratching with dirty hands or putting hair behind the ears all the time. Poor hygiene, ear piercings, eczema that causes itching and subsequent scratching, moisture under long hair, wearing glasses are all factors that can lead to infection and a smelly cheese odor behind the ears.
A fungal infection
If you don’t have eczema, but tend to scratch behind the ears all the time, then it’s possible you might have a fungus. For example, if you have a red, round rash, then it’s possible you might have a ringworm behind the ear. The fungal infection can cause a smelly cheese odor when scalp oils, dead skin cells, bacteria etc. accumulate. Having long hair and sweating, but not showering or not drying your hair all create the perfect environment for fungi to grow.
Although most people with ear piercings practice excellent hygiene, ear piercings are one of the most common causes for a bad cheese smell behind the ears in people dealing with the issue. The bad odor behind the ears can develop when a piercing becomes infected, for example, or when the jewelry is not cleaned as often as it should be.
Also, most people have a natural smell to their skin, which doesn’t mean you smell bad, but that natural, normal body odor may become stronger in certain areas if there are piercings that are not cleaned as often as they should be. If you don’t clean a fresh piercing frequently, or the earring, if you don’t disinfect the area and the earring, you may develop a bad smell behind the ears which is often most noticeable when you take off the piercing.
Mites and mites droppings, dead skin cells
Microscopic living beings called mites live on the skin, feeding on skin cells and producing droppings that may irritate the skin. Skin mites are a common cause of skin irritation, eczemas and other skin problems, and can cause itching. As a result, scratching and other behaviors that are damaging to the skin may develop, increasing risks of infection and bad odors such as a bad smell behind the ears.
Mites normally feed on dead skin cells, especially those resulting from dandruff or eczema. Exfoliating and moisturizing the skin to prevent flaking, using a natural oil for a dry scalp and dandruff, or conditioner instead of shampoo when you wash you hair, switching to more appropriate hair and skin care products especially designed for treating dandruff or other scalp and skin issues, as well as washing regularly can help solve the problem and possibly also help with a bad odor behind the ears.
Although not as common as other causes, allergies can cause a smelly cheese odor behind the ears. Food allergies but also pollen allergies can cause itching which makes you scratch and cause small injuries to the skin where pathogenic bacteria populations may grow and infections may develop as a result. A rash behind the ears is just as common a sign of allergies such as seasonal pollen allergies as it is of an infection or other types of adverse reactions.
Toxins and pollution
Just like dust and dirt, toxins and pollution particles can accumulate on our skin, in our hair and behind the ears. Sweat causes us to scratch and create microscopic tears where bacteria and other pathogens may grow, causing an infection and a bad smell behind the ears.
How to get rid of a bad smell behind ears
Getting rid of a bad smell or cheese-like odor behind the ears can be done successfully by approaching the cause, or causes, of the smell. Below is a list of some of the best remedies, tips and solutions for a bad cheese smell behind the ears you can try right now.
It’s important to wash the skin regularly, and especially wash behind the ears. When? After exercising, when it’s hot outside, if you sweat a lot, have been in dust or outside in windy weather and have allergies or long hair.
Use a medicated shampoo
Shampoos with Zinc pyrithione are great for seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, fungal and bacterial infections and other scalp and skin conditions which can also extend to the ear area (outer ear and behind the ears).
Antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory cream
You doctor can prescribe a cream, lotion, spray or another type of medicated preparation to apply behind the ears if you are experiencing a recurring bad smell behind the ears that does not respond well to plain washing with soap and water. The cream may contain just an antibacterial or antibiotic agent, or an antifungal agent, or an anti-inflammatory agent. Or it can have antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory agents to cover all potential causes of the bad smell behind the ears, such as bacterial infection, fungal infection, autoimmune reaction etc.
Use petroleum jelly
I have used petroleum jelly with calendula extract and found it an excellent remedy and solution for my eczema, and it can also help with seborrheic dermatitis, itching and dry skin. Petroleum jelly creates a barrier on the skin, preventing bacteria and other germs from getting through and multiplying, as well as relieves itching so you won’t scratch. The only rule is to wash behind the ears with soap and water and dry the area before applying the product.
Clean piercings and earrings frequently
Clean piercings and earrings regularly, as often as needed, to prevent infections. Chose silver earrings for an added antibacterial effect. Silver is less likely to cause irritation and predispose to infections than copper, nickel or other metals. Avoid cheaper jewelry metals, even though they may look good, and you just may save yourself lots of itching, scratching, inflammation and bad smells behind the ear.
Clean behind the ears whenever needed
Use wet wipes to clean behind the ears when you are on the go and don’t have access to clean water and soap (e.g. if you go camping). Antibacterial wet wipes are even better since they help reduce bacterial load for good hygiene.
Disinfect the area behind the ears and jewelry
You can use a disinfectant such as an alcohol spray to keep the area behind the ears, piercings and earrings clean and get rid of the cheese smell. Clean ear jewelry regularly and dry it well before putting it back.
Cut the hair
Cut hair if it’s too long and you don’t have time or proper resources to wash it often and dry it well, or if your job and other daily activities are not compatible with having long hair. A lot of times, dust, dirt, allergens, bacteria and other elements gather in hair and can predispose to acne (especially on the cheeks, jawline, around ear) and cause a bad smell behind ears.
Wash bedding often
Wash pillow cases, hats and other head and hair accessories often, at least once or twice a week. Change them if you get hot and sweat on them or if somebody else has worn them.
Use hair products reasonably, or don’t
Reduce or discontinue the use of (specific) hair care products like hairspray or hair gel. They increase scalp oil production and accumulate and trap dust, dirt etc.
Other tips and tricks for a bad smell behind the ears
Some people get rid of the bad smell behind their ears with antiperspirant or stick deodorant. However, it’s recommended to wash behind the ears with soap and water first, dry the area, then apply deodorant or antiperspirant.
You can also dab just a tiny amount of essential oils on the skin area behind the ears after washing to reduce or combat the cheese smell. You can try several options such as tea tree oil, grapefruit seed oil, peppermint oil or others, but watch out for allergic reactions and side effects such as skin irritation. Always use minute amounts and always after washing the area well and allowing it to dry.
A cheese smell behind the ears can be embarrassing as well as worrisome. Normally, the back of your ears shouldn’t smell bad and, when it does, it makes you wonder what could possibly be wrong. What adds to the difficulty of the situation is the fact that the causes of bad smells behind the ears are often hard to identify correctly, so it may take some time and several failed attempts at a treatment before you discover what really causes the cheesy smell behind the ears and what remedies work best for you. What should help identify the cause and get rid of the bad smell behind the ears is looking for additional symptoms like infection symptoms or signs of a skin condition.