Stinky Hair and How to Avoid it Medieval Style



If Yankee Candle came out with a new collection called Scents of the Middle Ages, chances are you wouldn’t be too interested. Why? Because at some point in your education, you have probably been told how disgusting everything and everyone in the Middle Ages smelled.

Time to dispel some myths…partially.

garbage dump
photo credit: Lixão no entorno do Parque Estadual da Serra do Rola Moça via photopin (license)

It is probably true that medieval cities didn’t smell that great. Waste removal was a constant and vexing concern. People lived in close quarters, and if you’ve read this post, you know that pigs and dogs and other animals liked to roam the city, leaving steaming piles of crap behind them.

However, medieval people were not content to live in squalor. Considerable effort was taken by city officials to deal with these issues of waste and pollution. They saw it as a matter of public health, because as far as they were concerned, bad smells could kill them. Literally. Before germ theory, people thought illness was caused by miasma, or bad air. Talk about silent, but deadly…

What about personal hygiene?

medieval bathtub
This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

We’ve all heard it–medieval people took only one bath a year. Nonsense. Medieval people bathed as often as they were inclined and able. In fact, bathing was considered quite fashionable by the aristocracy. But let’s assume for a minute that a medieval person didn’t have a bathtub, had no access to a river, and was morally opposed to bath houses on account of their ties to prostitution. That still doesn’t mean they were dirty.

A bar of soap, a wash rag, and a pitcher of water will clean a body just as well as sitting in a tub. Think about it. Is your face any less clean when you wash at the sink instead of in the shower? Of course not.

Hair washing
This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Hair washing, however, was a different story. Medieval people didn’t typically use soap on their hair. It was considered too harsh. Instead, they used a combination of spices and water.

Before you get a sense of hygienic superiority, do a Google search for the “no poo” method. This is a THING nowadays. Modern people are giving up the use of shampoo, something that counterintuitively is supposed to be especially beneficial for people with greasy hair. The theory is that modern shampoos strip the hair of natural oils, which in turn causes our bodies too produce excess oil to compensate. Proponents of this method believe water, or sometimes vinegar and baking soda, will not only sufficiently clean the hair, but also make it healthier and look better.

I have a friend who has foregone shampoo, and I have to admit, he has a nice head of hair. He says that when he first gave up shampoo, he had greasy hair for a few weeks. Then his body adjusted, and now his hair is healthier than ever.

Personally, I’m not quite ready to jump on the no-poo bandwagon. However, I wanted to give the medieval method a try. I found a recipe in The Trotula, a medieval health and beauty guide I describe in more detail in this postThe Trotula claims if I use this concoction, my hair will “smell marvelously.”

All my pretty spices. I love the colors


  • Rose Water
  • Dried Roses
  • Clove
  • Nutmeg
  • Watercress
  • Galangal

*Most health food shops will have both dried roses and rose-water, though you could make them yourself in a pinch.

*Clove, nutmeg, and watercress can all be found at your local supermarket.

*Galangal–This is a relative of ginger and looks very similar. It is often used in Thai cooking. It has a great citrus smell. I found it at an Asian supermarket.


All of the ingredients need to be powdered (except for the rose-water obviously). Clove and nutmeg can be bought in powder form, so that was no problem. For the watercress and galangal, I dehydrated them in the oven. Then I pulverized them with my coffee grinder. I did the same for the roses.
Then I combined the powdered ingredients.

Color isn’t so pretty once they’re all mixed together.

I added one spoonful of the power to 4 oz of rose-water.

Yup…looks pretty gross. It didn’t look like this on the hair, though.

The Test:

My son with a post-smore smile 🙂

I didn’t want to try this on clean hair. It didn’t seem a fair test. So I decided to have a little bonfire. The family and I roasted marshmallows, and I made sure that my hair got nice and smokey. I figured if this stuff could get rid of campfire smell, it was a success.

The Results:

I combed the concoction through my hair, and at first the smell was overwhelming. My husband liked the scent. “It smells like a fall candle,” he said. I assume this was the cloves and nutmeg he was smelling. My daughter came downstairs and patently did not like the smell. Like I said, it was strong.

As my hair began to dry, the smell grew less intense. I went over to my friend’s house to watch The Big Bang Theory. “Smell my head,” I demanded when I walked in the door. She gave me a raised eyebrow, then complied.

“Smells like citronella,” she said.

As we watched the show, I kept sniffing my hair. At first, it was because it was an unfamiliar scent. Overtime, though, I was just sniffing at my hair because I liked the way it smelled. There was absolutely no trace of campfire smoke. I wouldn’t say it smelled like citronella, but there was definitely a citrus smell, only with undertones of rose and just the hint of fall spices.

The next day before getting in the shower, I had my daughter smell my hair again. Now that it wasn’t so strong, she thought it smelled good.


I’m not likely to try the “no-poo” method, but if I did, I’d make use of this medieval hair tonic. I like it. It would be a great thing to bring on a camping trip. It really did a good job getting rid of the smoke smell and would be easy to bring in a small spray bottle. If Yankee Candle ever decides to make this scent into a candle, I’ll buy it (if only to annoy my daughter 🙂 ).




23 thoughts on “Stinky Hair and How to Avoid it Medieval Style

    1. My friend loves it, now that he’s past the gross adjustment stage. It makes sense to me, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to try it. If you do give it a go, please let me know what you think!

        1. Pollution and waste management was a huge problem. But they tried hard to cope with it. There’s a book by Caroline Rawcliffe called urban bodies with a lot of great info on the topic.

Leave a Reply