Ooop! Oiling Your Scalp May Not Be Necessary After All

But don’t rule out oils completely. Our panel of experts is comin’ through with the scoop on when oiling your scalp can be beneficial and when things can go left.

By Anissa Gabbara

Coconut oil. Argan oil. Shea butter. A growth oil blend. Whatever it is, you’ve used it on the regular when oiling your scalp. It’s been your nighttime pre-bonnet or scarf routine, your daytime refresh for added shine and hydration.

Or, so you thought.

That advice we’ve gotten from our moms, aunties, social media, and some of our hairstylists since foreva eva is actually one of the most common misconceptions in the natural hair community. Turns out, oiling your scalp is more of a cultural thing than a you-really-gotta-do-this-for-healthy-hair thing. 

“We have been taught we need to oil our scalp to prevent dryness and help our hair grow,” says certified trichologist Sophia Emmanuel. “It’s a tradition we passed on from one generation to the next.” But did you ever think of why that is?  It’s a ritual that goes all the way back to slavery, when the products our ancestors used on their hair in Africa, such as natural oils and herbs, were no longer accessible. Instead, they had to use anything they could get their hands on — think bacon grease, butter, and even kerosene. As Black haircare became a booming biz at the turn of the 20th century, better products hit the market like Annie Turnbo Malone’s Wonderful Hair Grower and Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Scalp Ointment, the latter of which has updated formulations still available today.

But knowing what we know now, that oiling our scalp is based more on heritage and less on hair health, does this mean you need to toss every serum in your stash? Nah. But, the next time you reach for one, just make it make sense. Here, let us explain:

Don’t sleep on H2O.

The real MVP in the moisture game is water. After all, it’s the only ingredient that truly hydrates. So, when your strands are feeling parched, reach for a water-based spray, styler, or cream. (You’ll know something is legit water-based if water is the first ingredient listed.) Oil can help retain that water, which is key in the moisturizing process, but straight-up oil on its own? Hard pass.

“Some oils are called moisturizers because they saturate the strands and maybe have fatty acids, but it’s misleading,” says natural haircare coach Kanisha Tillman. Take coconut, olive, and avocado oils, for instance. Known as penetrating oils, they’re easily absorbed by the hair because their molecules are small enough to seep into your strands, leaving them feeling super soft and nourished. Sealing oils like jojoba, castor, and grapeseed can’t penetrate your tresses because their molecules are too large. Instead, they sit on your hair’s surface, acting as a barrier to keep moisture from entering — and escaping — your strands.

Use oil to lock in moisture.

Remember when we said you don’t need to toss all the oils in your collection because they can help hair hold on to the hydration water is giving? It’s pretty much the basis of the LCO and LOC methods. In the first method, which works best for low porosity hair, you apply liquid (water), then cream, and lock it all in with an oil. In the LOC method, most ideal for high porosity hair, the cream is applied after the oil to close the hair cuticle.

Just don’t be too extra with it. Oil overload is real. And besides staining your pillowcase, shirt, and car seat, among other things, if you put it on your scalp, it can also clog your pores with a quickness. This is especially true when using petroleum and mineral oil-based products. “You could end up with folliculitis, which is a follicle infection and that can actually cause balding,” says Tillman. “You will also end up with some itchiness [and] some flaking because your scalp is basically suffocating under all of that.”

Fr fr, if you are going to use any oils, stick with applying them to the hair itself, rather than the scalp. “Each strand of hair that you see on your head has its own oil gland attached to it,” says Lori Huckaby, a certified trichologist and licensed cosmetologist based in North Carolina. “So, before your hair even comes out to the surface, it’s getting lubricated. That’s how it’s able to come penetrate through the skin.” Emmanuel cosigns: “Oiling your scalp is not necessary because our scalp gets lubricated by sebum … a waxy substance that provides moisture and protection and lubricates your scalp.”

Opt for oil as a pre-poo.

As a pre-poo treatment, oils can protect your tresses from the harsh effects of some shampoos, all while softening your strands, making the detangling process a whole lot easier. Plus, penetrating oils like coconut can help prevent your hair from constantly swelling and contracting while wet. This is called hygral fatigue (aka over-moisturization), which can lead to damage. A pre-poo is also a much better choice than a co-wash, according to Huckaby. “Conditioners, unless they specify that they’re a cleansing conditioner, [are] not cleaning anything. You’re just adding more coating onto the hair and scalp,” she says. “So, if you co-wash, basically your hair is dirty, it needs to be washed, and you’re gonna plop a bunch of conditioner on it, and rinse the conditioner out. So, now all you did was put another sealant on top of dirty hair and scalp.”

Keep your hair and scalp free of buildup.

We’ve already established that slathering on a ton of oil is a bad idea. But, even when used in reasonable amounts, keeping those wash days consistent can help you avoid buildup altogether. “[Washing your hair] weekly would be ideal,” says Huckaby. “Some people can push it for maybe two weeks — I wouldn’t go longer than that.”

Rockin’ box braids, cornrows, Bantu knots, locs, or a high puff? You may want to steer clear of using oils at all. “One reason is if you are not washing your hair while it is in the protected style, dirt, sebum, and the oil you apply [can accumulate],” says Emmanuel. “This can lead to a clogged scalp, itching, and dandruff.” She suggests spraying a water-based astringent, such as witch hazel, directly onto your scalp once or twice a week, instead. Not only does this technique remove the accumulation of dirt and yeast, but it also gives dry scalps a much-needed moisture boost oils just can’t deliver. 

Keep your curl pattern in mind.

One more ‘gain for the people in the back: Your scalp produces oil every day on its own.  But everyone’s hair is different, and obvi, the tighter the curl, the longer it takes that oil to travel down the hair shaft, so a tightly coiled crown can handle a bit more oil (post water-based product application) than one with a looser curl pattern, explains Tillman. “Your hair is more dense, your hair has a stronger curl pattern, so it’s not easily weighed down by the oils.” She adds, “For straighter hair … you don’t wanna add oil every day because it will weigh it down too much. The hair will start to look stiff … it just won’t move. It won’t have any of the volume, and it will start to look too shiny, like almost greasy, and that’s not anything that anybody wants.”

Main Photo: Alex Robinson/Unsplash

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