Oiling Our Hair Is An Age-Old Ritual For Black And Brown People. But Does It Actually Work?

An investigation.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

I can still remember the sights and smells of the beauty shop my mom frequented when I was a child. Pump it Up! styling spritz lingered in the air after slicking and securing the Marcel curls, and a row of five women patiently sat under hot hooded dryers with pink plastic ear covers, their weekly wash and sets underway. Any and every hair need was covered during an afternoon at the salon.

Thirty years later, caring for natural hair, as some of you know, can be a second full-time job minus the PTO and 401(k). When did simple grooming become so complicated and covered in oil?

I went natural in 2009 and spent most of the 2010s searching for the perfect hair oil because I was told that it was the golden key to healthy, long, curly hair. I tried it all: coconut, tea tree, almond. I’d peruse the cooking oil aisle at the supermarket, thinking, “If avocado oil is good enough for a tenderizing marinade, it’ll be perfect for my dry scalp, too.”

Early 2010s YouTubers and hair bloggers were accessible sources for hair advice, but they weren’t usually trained professionals. Most of them pushed the use of raw (aka unprocessed) oils and other DIY hair care to a thirsty audience. Hair gurus, with their luscious, viral locks, preached minimal washing and regular heavy oiling, which left many of us dying to get our greasy fingers on whatever they recommended.

The market exploded with oil and hair butter options in the 2010s mainly because the demand for these ingredients was high, says hairstylist Anita Wilson of Monarch Curls in Los Angeles. And while it’s chilled out a bit, hair oils (or using various oils in our hair) is still a popular practice. Back then it was coconut and castor oil, and more recently, now rosemary oil is having her trending moment.

“Consumers drive what gets sold in stores, but that doesn’t mean the product is going to necessarily do anything for you,” Wilson says. “Hair care lines sell hair oils because consumers clamor for them.” This wasn’t too foreign to me, because growing up in Black households, greasing your scalp was common after washing your hair or as a way to prep your scalp before a relaxer. But the intention for using grease and oil has clearly evolved over the years.

Anointing our heads is part of Black personal care across the diaspora. It’s comfort, it’s nostalgia; it’s our girlhood in a gleaming glass jar. As little girls, after a smoky blow dry, we sat at our mother/sister/auntie’s feet (sometimes unwillingly) and they slathered our tresses with Luster’s Pink Hair Lotion, parted the hair in sections and dabbed our roots with some type of oil or pomade to make our little pigtails thrive.

Anointing our heads is part of Black personal care across the diaspora. It’s comfort, it’s nostalgia; it’s our girlhood in a gleaming glass jar.

In South Asian cultures, oiling hair is also a grooming ritual, and multiple oils are swapped out based on the seasons. To this day, any gaggle of young schoolgirls in Mumbai, Delhi or Chennai will boast at least a few slicked-back plaits. And so, this grooming ritual that is practiced across cultures — one that apparently goes back thousands of years to ancient Egypt — became commodified in the U.S.

Haitian American educator Joanne Merrill, who now lives in Atlanta, recalls how confident she felt after her mother oiled and braided her hair before the school year. “My mom and dad always made sure we looked good, and we felt even better,” she says, nostalgia dripping in her voice. Having someone else tenderly apply a layer of sweet-smelling oil to your scalp feels like a luxurious act of love, from one coily crown to another — this tradition passed down through generations, contributing to Black survival.

Although our ancestors were ripped from their homeland and cultural practices, their innovation is what ensured their protection through slavery’s heinous effects in the Americas. The transatlantic slave trade triggered the migration of several African plant species known for their medicinal properties, explains Professor Judith Carney in her book, ”In the Shadow of Slavery,” and so slave traders learned that the oil from the castor bean plant could be used to treat skin conditions and head lice.

By the early 1500s, the castor plant became a staple crop in enslaved Africans’ living quarters’ dooryard garden for multiuse medicinal purposes, according to Carney and other historians. Enslaved Africans weren’t allowed to bathe daily, so they used the oil to coat their skin and scalps, which protected them from the sun and insects while working on the plantations. This explains the many modern-day variations of castor oil (Jamaican castor oil, Haitian castor oil, etc.).

So oil was used as a preventative medicine, and then, much later, to soften hair and create a more polished appearance. But does oiling our hair and scalp really make hair softer, stronger and more prone to growth, like so many pushers preach?

Wilson is one of the stylists fighting to simplify and standardize hair care routines to reframe how people with curly/coily hair perceive and care for their tresses. She argues that we don’t need any oil for healthy, moisturized hair. Although our textures are different, Black hair has the same protein structure as any other race, so she believes that we need to stop treating our hair as though it’s something so wild and untamable.

From a scientific standpoint, the best oil option for your hair may come in the form of formulated products where oil is one of several ingredients because those products are often tested to confirm positive results, says Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and CEO of BeautyStat, his science-driven skincare brand. In these products, raw oils have been carefully processed, refined and tested for hair specifically — rather than for coating meat and frying eggs.

Although oil is a natural emollient that lubricates and softens the skin and hair, it does not mix with water. So, Wilson explains, it can create buildup on the hair strands and scalp, which forms a repelling seal preventing the absorption of water — the real source of moisture.

When I was on my quest to find “right oil” that was supposed to help my hair grow faster and stronger, I often found my scalp itchy, dry and flaky. “This could be caused by overgrown yeast we all have called malassezia,” says Black Massachusetts-based dermatologist and cosmetologist Dr. Yolanda Lenzy. “If you add raw oils, it tends to feed the naturally occurring yeast. Initially, it looks like the oil is helping the dry, flaky scalp, but in a day or so, it’s proliferating even more.” This is why I fell into the product-junkie hair trap. Like most natural girlies, I thought the problem was my hair, not the oils.

About 30% of Lenzy’s clients have experienced some variation of hair loss. She specializes in scalp conditions and doesn’t recommend that anyone with any type of inflammation on their scalp use oil, since the buildup it causes can actually worsen inflammation.

Similarly, Wilson is wary of hair oiling. She tells me that many of her Black female clients (who are only in their 20s and 30s) are already experiencing hair loss. Based on what she’s seen, she believes that hair loss is linked to using too many oils, which may be blocking water from truly doing its work to moisturize the hair and scalp.

Despite what these experts warn about the overuse of oils, it can be hard to put the bottle down because there’s also some evidence that certain oils do promote growth and strengthen the hair.

Ayurvedic oils — amla, almond, and coconut, to name a few — have been ubiquitous in South Asia for thousands of years. And now we can find them at any beauty shop. There are a few small studies that support the use of Amla oil for moisture and strength. Almond and coconut oils have mostly been found to increase hair health, but there’s no data that shows they promote growth.

In the U.K. and here in the U.S., both peppermint oil and rosemary oil have shown potential for hair growth and repair. Rosemary oil appears to be the most promising. I actually found research touting its efficacy and anti-inflammatory properties in humans vs. non-human animals. It’s also important to note that these hopeful oil studies involve using small amounts of it, not slathering cupfuls into your scalp.

Olive oil has been found to give the appearance of thicker and shinier hair versus actually growing it. Wilson reminded me that just because the hair is shiny and long, it doesn’t mean it is growing healthily. You cannot look at a head of shiny, long hair and assume it’s healthy; oil can coat your hair and make it look and feel full.

Lenzy also gently broke an important truth: that our hair thickness and condition is largely dependent on our genetics. “If people have strong hair-growing genetics, their hair will grow strong regardless,” she says. And though strategic hair oiling may help as a preventive or general wellness measure, the only topical treatment, right now, that is clinically proven and approved by the FDA to grow hair is minoxidil.

Ultimately, if you’re on the quest for hydration, water consumption and shampooing and conditioning frequently is key. “One of the things that we often see in our Black and brown communities is infrequent hair cleansing,” says Lenzy. “And that can stunt growth because the growth comes from a healthy scalp.” She also assures me that washing once a week will not contribute to hair breakage.

If you want to keep your beloved ritual though, you can. Oils can be part of the hydrating process, but raw oil or grease itself is not doing the hydrating. “It’s conditioning or supplementing the process of hydration,” she says.

Regarding my personal hair routine, it no longer includes oiling my scalp. In 2020, when I had entirely too much time on my hands, I started washing my hair every week — and that’s when my curls started to look Pinterest-worthy. Oiling hair is not a practice that will disappear since it is too far embedded in Black and brown culture, but we can surely upgrade it with a little balance.

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