Traditional Hair Oils Are Making A Comeback
Picture this: an intricately carved bathtub is filled with herbal water painstakingly infused by boiling barks of over a dozen trees. On one end are three intricately carved silver bowls, each containing a different oil: for face, body and hair. After a dip in this bath, hair is dried with a muslin towel and spread over a basket suspended over burning, herb-scented coals. The resultant smoke dries the strands gently and leaves them mildly fragrant.
A treatment fit for any luxury spa today, this is how South Indian princesses used to look after their long, black lustrous tresses. To oil or not to oil is a choice we as Indian women face today. For royalty, long, black hair oiled and combed was a ritual; for our humble ancestors, applying oil on hair was a habit.
To quote an ancient text, the Charak Samhita, ‘one who applies oil on his head regularly does not suffer from headache, baldness, graying of hair. Nor does his hair fall. Strength of his head, forehead is specially enhanced; his hair become black, long and deep-rooted.’ Thus, oiling is encouraged as the primary haircare regimen in Ayurveda.
A couple of decades earlier, a head wash without rubbing and massaging the scalp with some oil the night before was considered blasphemy. A hair treatment did not mean a visit to the salon. It entailed laborious preparations containing decoctions of herbs and flowers at home. Oils were poured on the head, and gently massaged on the scalp (not the ends). Neatly braided, the hair was tied in a thin scarf so that the pillow didn’t get oily. As a child, on days when I resisted a massage the night before, my grandmother had an express technique up her sleeve: she would oil my scalp an hour before the wash, and wrap my tresses in a hot towel for half an hour. Apparently she was onto something, as today most in-salon hair treatments typically include a massage, steaming hot towel, hair wash and blast dry.
Since herbs could not be directly massaged onto the scalp, they were infused into nutrient-rich, cold-pressed vegetable oils. For instance, dried and powdered hibiscus powder when added to coconut oil prevented hair fall and premature greying. Juice from amla fruits (or Indian gooseberries) was added to pure coconut oil for lustrous hair, and sap from neem leaves soothed an itchy scalp. In Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet, Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar, drew on the oral histories of privileged Indian women to capture and revive their indulgent beauty traditions. One such account is described where “all the herbs and roots were soaked in coconut oil for a day or two until the oil became green. Then mother would grate the marrow (of bottle gourd) into this oil and put the whole thing to cook on fire. When the marrow was cooked, the oil was strained and bottled.”
With the advent of international haircare brands, we traded tradition for convenience, messy massages for comfortable conditioners and oil treatment at home for hair spa at salons. As we discarded our plaits and embraced fringes, layers and bangs, we needed styling products to boost the movement of our locks. Oiling hair on a daily basis, more than a hassle, was a style-spoiler. Our city lifestyle also didn’t leave us much time to indulge in time-consuming tedious regimes, even on weekends. But now science has also recognised the superiority of traditional remedies over creamy formulations. Their small molecular structure allows easy penetration into the hair follicles and works directly on the roots.
While mainstream haircare brands such as Kérastase, L’Oréal and Moroccanoil are capitalising on the non-greasy character of hydrating argan oil, many Indian brands are working to revive Ayurvedic blends through a more user-friendly avatar. “Most clients with damaged hair due to chemical procedures (such as rebonding, straightening and colouring) relish the idea of using high quality hair decoctions that their grandmothers would prescribe. Our Javakusum oil is imbued with fresh hibiscus flowers that are picked according to the right season, sun-dried and hand-pounded. It’s encouraging to see that people of non-Indian ethnicity are also warming up to the idea of oiling hair,” explains Dr Neena Chopra, director, beauty and technical, Just Herbs. Kama Ayurveda’s Bringadi Intensive Hair Treatment Oil which prevents hair loss, dandruff and premature graye, is a blend of herbs processed in pure sesame oil and milk. The herbal formula includes indigo (neeli), Eclipta Alba and gooseberry to promote hair growth; liquorice which acts as an anti-fungal agent; and balloon vine which prevents scalp infection. Forest Essentials Ayurvedic Herb Enriched Head Massage Oil Japapatti contains rich coconut milk and coconut oil infused with hibiscus and japapatti leaf, beneficial for thickening and restoring shine.
“Base and essential oil should be selected according to constitution and mane condition,” believes Vivek Sahni, director, Kama Ayurveda. He explains that the carrier or base oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fatty portion of the plant, usually from the seeds, kernels or nuts. They are rich in vitamins, proteins, nutrients and therapeutic properties. Essential oils are concentrated liquids distilled from the leaves, barks and roots and have a concentrated aroma. They are so potent that they must be diluted in carrier oils. “Head massage before bathing in the morning gently awakens the nerves, while in the evening it is de-stressing and promotes peaceful sleep,” he adds.
Today you don’t have to take a tough call of choosing oils over your favourite haircare products. They can all co-exist happily. As Dr Kiran Lohia, Medical Director, Lumiere Dermatology, Delhi sums it “No silicone can give the benefit that coconut oil can. But in the modern world, we have been favouring masks and serums, instead of the tried and tested methods. That doesn’t mean that these aren’t helpful. It’s just that hair oiling should not be abandoned.”
Oil vs serum
“Serums condition the hair with silicone, which is not necessarily healthy if used too much, while oils have a molecular composition which makes them lighter and thus more easily absorbed by the inner layers of the hair,” says Pooja Salva, creative director and hair expert at MyGlamm. Serums can temporarily make your hair look healthier and lustrous, but oils can reconstruct and at the same time protect the hair with more lasting results. “Oils have natural cleansing properties and can work as a pre-wash and deep conditioner, killing the harmful bacteria and built-up dirt from your scalp.” Lighter, oil-based serums can be used as a conditioner after hair wash but only on the tips to reduce dryness.