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Beauty

Hair Oiling Is More Than A Trend—It Connects Me To My South Asian Roots

“It felt strangely awkward to learn how to oil my hair, like returning to a version of myself I had abandoned.”
By Ayesha Habib
A colourful illustration showing three generations of South Asian women hair oiling. (Illustration: Meera Sethi)

My fingers work through the tangled mess of my hair, coconut oil coating each strand as I massage it into my scalp. The process is slow—my arms ache after a while. Each tangled knot is undone meticulously, until my whole head is saturated in oil and my hands effortlessly run through the thicket from root to tip.

Hair oiling is an act of self-care for me—an indulgence. As I slather on the oil, I picture my mother as a little girl, sitting between the knees of her own mother, ready for their weekly oiling session. My grandmother scoops a dollop of coconut oil from a value-sized tub and melts it in the warmth of her hands, then she slicks it though my mother's thick, wavy hair. I imagine the grimace on my mother’s girlhood face as my grandmother pulls her hair back into a too-tight bun. I smell the earthy scent of coconut that will linger on their skin.

In South Asian culture, hair oiling is rooted in tradition, family bonding and self-care. An ancient Ayuverdic ritual that dates back thousands of years, it’s a holistic practice, one that is as centered around love as it is hair health—sneha, the Sanskrit word for “to oil” also translates to “to love.” Natural oils are worked into the scalp and spread towards the tips to protect the hair and lock in moisture. The process nourishes the scalp, protects the strands and is believed to promote healthy hair growth. Organic virgin coconut oil (which is good for dry or damaged hair) and amla oil, also known as Indian gooseberry (a vitamin C-packed oil that’s said to stimulate hair growth and prevent grey hairs), are commonly used for hair oiling in Indian households. My mother has always used coconut oil; I use a combination of both.

But beyond the nourishing benefits, hair oiling is a tangible expression of tenderness between generations. Mothers and fathers oil their children’s hair until—and often into—adulthood. To oil someone’s hair is to share in an intimate experience, even when tangles are sometimes undone a little too aggressively.

Hair oiling is practiced in many other cultures too. The Ancient Egyptians used castor oil to strengthen their hair. Tsubaki, or camellia japonica, oil has been used for centuries as a hydrating hair and skin oil in Japan. Moroccan hair rituals are known for the use of argan oil, which softens strands and is lightweight enough for fine hair. Black cumin, or black seed oil, is a traditional ingredient in Middle Eastern foods, and is also used to combat hair loss. Hair oiling, and hair care in general, is a fundamental part of Black culture and generational bonding.

I had my hair oiled as a very small child, but once I was older—and especially once my family moved from Kenya to Canada when I was 12—I felt the pressure that many young people of colour often feel growing up amongst mostly white peers. My mother grew up as part of the Indian diaspora in Kenya, where oiling your hair before school was the norm. I refused to continue the tradition—even going so far as throwing out the hair oil she gave me in revolt. For me, it wasn’t just the pressure to fit in, but also the desire to not draw attention to the ways in which I was culturally different: My biggest fear was to be seen as Indian, a label that my white classmates associated with funny accents and stinky food.

@drgurleenbrarsivia The way I would have such nice hair if I didnt fight with my mom about not putting oil in it cause people bullied me about it 😭 #browngirlproblems #cleangirl #browngirl ♬ original sound - Dr G.B.

Most young people go through similar fears, whether they are trying to fit into a new culture, or a beauty standard—or a heteronormative one. We all try on different versions of ourselves and cringe years later at our awkwardness. As a new kid in a new country, I cloaked myself in whiteness in hopes it would protect me from otherness. For 14-year-old me, that meant sizzling my curls with a hair straightener each day, clumsily over-plucking my naturally thick eyebrows, shaving my arms and never letting myself stay out in the sun for too long, for fear of my skin getting darker. It also meant refusing to oil my hair; I knew my classmates would think my hair was greasy.

Now, hair oiling is trending in the mainstream beauty world, thanks to TikTokers who have rebranded the ancient ritual “hair slugging,” a name inspired by the skincare technique of the same name, in which petroleum jelly is used to seal in skincare and promote a dewy glow. In response, many South Asian creators have expressed that, far from a trend, hair oiling is a practice with a rich history—and that many brown girls were bullied for their oiled hair while growing up in North America. The practice is suddenly in the spotlight as the "clean girl aesthetic," but without respect or awareness of its cultural origins. And with that viral notoriety comes a loss of the humanity that has been at the centre of this ritual for centuries.

I found myself turning to hair oiling—with a sheepish embarrassment at my adolescent fears—in my early 20s when stress and a decade of heat damage caused my hair to fall out in clumps. It felt strangely awkward to learn how to oil my hair with the help of online tutorials and instructions from my mother, like returning to a version of myself I had abandoned.

Dr. Malika Ladha, a dual board-certified dermatologist based in Toronto, says she's recently noticed an uptick in the number of patients interested in hair oiling. She suggests starting by massaging an oil into a dry scalp with your fingers. Then, spread the oil through the hair from root to tip, undoing the knots one by one. While some traditional methods will leave the oil overnight in a bun or braid, Ladha recommends leaving your hair down during the process to avoid breakage and leaving the oil in for just 15 to 30 minutes. Washing the oil out thoroughly with shampoo is also essential, she says, to make sure it doesn’t weigh hair down. For the same reason, she suggests hair oiling should be done a maximum of twice a week.

“It's [not] a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Ladha. “In general, hair oiling can provide vitamins and minerals to the hair. It also softens and helps replace nutrients that get washed away with frequent hair washing, and there is a relaxation component to it as well.”

Ladha doesn’t recommend hair oiling for dandruff or folliculitis as oil provides an ideal environment for yeast to thrive, compounding those issues. For people who experience psoriasis or anyone with a rash on their scalp, getting a dermatologist’s input before trying hair oiling is a good idea. Also keep an eye out for any fragrance in your oils, which has the potential to cause an allergic reaction when in contact with your scalp for a long period of time. “The other consideration is how coarse or fine your hair is,” Ladha says. “People with fine, straight hair will probably find that oiling weighs their hair down, but people with dryer, coarser hair can really benefit from oiling.”

The first time I slathered scoops of coconut oil into my hair, I was hit with the sudden weight of what could have been—what had I missed out on because of childhood stubbornness, because of my fear of being seen as different? My mother and I are close, and my relationship to my Indian identity has never been stronger than it is now after years of gradually learning to embrace my culture. But still, I mourn the moments we could have shared.

Hair oiling might be just a fleeting trend for some, but for those who grew up having their hair oiled by the ones they love—and even for those who, like me, found their way back to it after a break—it remains sacred.

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