When you rub your finger behind your ear and sniff it, you may smell a distinct odor. It may remind you of cheese, sweat, or general body odor.

Here’s what may be causing the odor and how to get rid of the smell behind your ears.

Most of the root causes of a bad smell behind the ears come down to excessive secretions, hygiene, infection, or a combination of the three.

Secretions and hygiene

It’s easy to jump in the shower, wash the most obvious and prominent areas of your body, and forget about the tiny spots behind the ears.

After all, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a place that sweats or gets dirty easily. So, neglecting to wash there thoroughly might be the cause of odor behind the ears.

Sweat glands are found all over the body, including behind the ears. They secrete perspiration that begins to smell when it comes in contact with bacteria and oxygen.

Sebaceous glands are also found wherever there’s skin. They secrete sebum (oil), a mix of wax and fats that can smell bad. The overlay of the ear, along with the folds and grooves behind it, makes it easy for all these substances and their smells to hide and build up.

This is especially the case if you have overactive glands that secrete more than the average amount of sweat or sebum. If you have acne, there’s a very good chance you have overactive glands.

Pollution and physical barriers

Substances can build up along the hairline and behind the ears, leading to unpleasant smells. These substances can include:

  • smoke of any type
  • hair products
  • automobile fumes
  • other forms of pollution and debris

The following can also clog the pores behind your ears or trap bodily secretions that amplify odor:

  • long hair
  • scarves
  • earmuffs
  • hats
  • cosmetics
  • hair product residues

Infection

Infections often cause a cheeselike smell. Bacteria, yeast, and fungi are most often to blame. This is because they like warm, moist places.

Bacteria, yeast, and fungi can grow behind the ears due to:

  • scratching the area with dirty hands
  • wearing eyeglasses
  • having infectious discharge stemming from an ear piercing or possibly an external ear infection

Especially moist conditions and skin irritation can make matters worse.

If you’ve experienced itching, pain, or drainage from your ear, this could indicate an ear infection affecting the ear canal. Sometimes, even if the infection inside the ear canal has cleared, bacteria or fungi might remain. This can cause a cheeselike smell behind your ears.

Earwax

There are many sweat glands inside the ear that help form earwax. Tiny bits of this wax might also make their way out of the ear and onto the skin behind it.

Earwax is a sticky substance that can be quite smelly, even in barely noticeable quantities.

Other skin and scalp conditions

Dandruff, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and frequent sensitivity rashes can all cause dry, irritated skin. This alone can weaken the skin, but it also prompts you to scratch. That makes your skin even more vulnerable as you introduce bacteria and pollutants to the area.

Emotional or physical stress can increase the desire to scratch, further promoting these conditions.

You may get rid of a bad smell behind the ears by simply treating its cause.

Cleansing and circulation

Gently scrubbing and washing the area daily may eliminate the odor very quickly.

Keep your lower scalp, ears, and upper neck clear of pore-clogging products and uncovered by hair or clothing, too. Be vigilant in hot, humid weather or after intense physical exercise.

Disinfecting

Rub alcohol or hydrogen peroxide on the area behind the ears, especially after ear piercings. Be sure to follow your piercer’s directions for aftercare.

Disinfect and clean earrings regularly as well.

Medicated skin creams

If cleansing and disinfecting alone don’t help alleviate the smell, you may need something more targeted to the specific underlying cause.

Talk to your doctor to help determine the cause. They can also recommend whether antibacterial, antifungal, or anti-inflammatory creams, including hydrocortisone, might help with treatment. Your doctor may give you a prescription.

A pharmacy can also advise on which over-the-counter ointment might be best for you.

Sweat reduction

If excess sweat is causing the smell behind your ears, clean the area with a damp cloth or fragrance-free wipe after exercising or being out in the heat.

Consider keeping the area dry as well. To do this, try using one of the following:

  • baby powder
  • antiperspirant
  • stick deodorant

Acne medication

When your glands secrete excess sebum, acne may develop. You can unclog pores and dry up excess sebum behind your ears by using:

Minimize pollutants and barriers

Consider cutting your hair away from your ears. Wash hats, earmuffs, scarves, and pillow cases often.

Avoid using hair and skin products close to the ears to see if any one of them is contributing to the smell behind your ears. Stop each product one at a time. If you stop them all at once, you won’t necessarily know which one, if any, is causing an odor.

Medicated shampoo

If your skin seems to be very dry and flaky rather than oily and clogged, shampoos containing zinc pyrithione may help. These shampoos can reduce eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and various infections that thrive in more arid skin conditions.

If you only have dry skin, protecting the area with a protectant like petroleum jelly might help.

Ear drops

If you suspect the remains of a previously treated ear infection or excess earwax might be to blame for the smell, discuss ear drops with a doctor or pharmacist.

Essential oils

might do double duty when it comes to reducing odor behind your ears. They may help soothe and heal the skin while also offering a pleasant smell to counteract any bad ones.

Some essential oils to consider include:

Be sure to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil to avoid irritating your skin.

If you notice an unpleasant smell behind your ears, there may be a number of causes — but there are also several treatments.

You may have overactive glands secreting extra sweat and sebum, which you can usually treat by improving hygiene and good air circulation.

In some cases, an infection or skin condition might be the culprit, in which case medicated creams could be your next line of defense.

If you try several different remedies and the condition doesn’t seem to clear up, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor.