For the past five millennia, women and men across the globe have scooped oils squeezed from local plants onto their hair for nourishment. Ask any woman from South Asia and you will hear of the warm act of ‘sneha’ (Sanskrit for ‘to oil’ or ‘to love’), childhood memories of their mothers lovingly massaging a fragrant mixture of oils onto their hair before a shower.
In ancient Egypt, the oils of choice were almond and castor. Shea butter’s sweet-smelling roots trace back to women in Africa, who would use it to condition and braid afro-textured hair. According to the 2006 book Encyclopedia of Hair: A cultural history by Victoria Sherrow, Native Americans used animal fats such as bear oil or grease for haircare.
Today, as oiling continues in households worldwide, with a spike in usage during the pandemic as we turned to at-home options for glossy tresses (as per statistics website Mordor Intelligence) – one oil treatment stood out, racking up a whopping 60m views on TikTok. We spoke to dermatologists and a trichologist to find out just why a hot oil treatment is the hottest at-home haircare mask for instant results and what not to do.
A beneficial pre-wash routine
Before we delve into the treatment itself, let’s look at why exactly oiling is beneficial for hair.
• Protecting your hair from friction and breakage when washing
“All oils in general provide a coating layer so it can be protective,” says Dr Fatima Rezgui, specialist dermatologist at Dubai-based Aesthetica clinic. “This is important before shampoo because the soap and combing can be very traumatising and abrasive for the hair.”
All oils in general provide a coating layer so they can be protective. This is important before shampoo because the soap and combing can be very traumatising and abrasive for the hair.
• Moisturising and nourishing your hair and scalp
Depending on its consistency, the oil can sink into your hair cuticle (the outer layer of hair), sealing it to trap moisture inside. Dr Rezgui says, “It has some moisturising effects especially for dry hair. Some oils also have nutrients that can nourish the hair. For example, coconut oil and olive oil are highly nutritive.”
• Massaging the oil into your scalp can help to increase blood circulation
“Oil massage or even a normal head massage may help in increasing the blood circulation. It is only a habit and is helpful in grooming the hair,” says Dr Satish Kumar, specialist dermatologist with 25 years of experience at Doctors clinic, Dubai.
Oil massage or even a normal head massage may help in increasing the blood circulation. It is only a habit and is helpful in grooming the hair.
However, he adds that scientifically, we do not require extra oil as sebum is naturally produced to moisturise our scalp.
• Rosemary oil may prevent one type of hair loss
Dr Rezgui refers to a 2015 study by Iran-based researchers published in the US-based journal SKINmed, “There is a study that compares rosemary oil to minoxidil, a treatment for hair loss – and shown that it gives the same effect, preventing and treating it.
“Specifically one type of hair loss that is very common – androgenetic hair loss. It can be prevented and treated by rosemary oil to a certain extent as it can reduce the effect of androgen hormones on hair.”
According to Dr Zahra Darwish, trichologist at Dubai-based Vivandi trichology, for other hair loss causes unrelated to scalp or hair damage, such as a thyroid issue, a certain medication, or iron deficiency, oiling will not help.
• Coconut oil may prevent protein loss from strands
“Coconut oil is special because unlike other oils, the molecules are smaller so they can penetrate the hair, providing deep moisturisation. Other oils sit on the hair and coat it. Also, what’s good about coconut oil is that it prevents protein loss, which makes the hair stronger,” says Dr Rezgui.
A 2003 study by India-based researchers in the Journal of Cosmetic Science found: “Among three oils (sunflower, mineral, and coconut), coconut oil was the only oil found to reduce the protein loss remarkably for both undamaged and damaged hair when used as a pre-wash and post-wash grooming product.”
Warm oil, better absorption
“Hot oiling is good if you do it once a week or twice a month because it provides a good nutrition and nourishment to the hair, if you’re using a good oil,” says Dr Darwish.
Dr Rezgui says, “Most oils are too thick to penetrate the hair but when you heat the oil, it makes the hair more permeable to the oil and it also seals the cuticle, so it’s more beneficial for very dry and brittle hair.” Dr Kumar adds that it can also ease the removal of thick scales on scalp.
Rosemary oil would need to be diluted with a carrier oil before use. She advises to stay away from mineral oils, as they are not recommended for hair.
However, many of us may be damaging our hair in the way we oil our strands, whether by leaving it overnight or applying it onto our scalp post-shower.
The most common mistake everyone does is that immediately after they apply oil, they start combing their hair. The hair has oil on it and is in its most fragile stage - combing the hair will cause a lot of hair breakage and it would lead to hair loss.
Dr Darwish says, “There are many people who have a habit of oiling their hair daily or twice a week. And when they come to me and I see their hair, sometimes they have lost 50 per cent of hair and oil has not done any good to them and has just created more damages.” Here’s how to do it right –
A step-by-step hot oil treatment guide
“Before washing, I would definitely recommend applying oil – from the scalp and hair itself, from roots to ends,” says Dr Rezgui.
However, if you have any scalp inflammation or disease, consult your dermatologist first before trying this.
Brush or comb your hair to remove the tangles.
2. Warm up the oils
Slightly warm your preferred oils – either by placing the bowl or bottle in hot water or using a microwave. “You should not burn your hair or scalp, the temperature should be warm rather than hot,” says Dr Rezgui.
You can also use a squeeze bottle that can apply oil directly onto your scalp.
3. Apply it onto your hair and scalp
Gently massage it into your scalp and hair for a few minutes, covering the full length of your strands.
4. Avoid combing
“The most common mistake everyone does is that immediately after they apply oil, they start combing their hair. The hair has oil on it and is in its most fragile stage - combing the hair will cause a lot of hair breakage and it would lead to hair loss,” says Dr Darwish.
You can gently detangle your hair with your fingertips.
5. Gather your hair, but no tight hairstyles
“Ninety-nine per cent of people, when they oil, they do a tight ponytail or roll their hair and bring everything to the top of the head with a big clip. This would also lead to a lot of hair breakage,” says Dr Darwish.
What you can do instead is bundle your hair into a shower cap to not only trap heat but keep your hair in place or use a loose clip at the base of your neck.
6. Hooded dryer, warm towel wrap or short steam session
After covering hair with a shower cap, you can sit under a hooded dryer for 10 minutes or warm a towel and wrap it around your head. If you’re using a steamer, Dr Darwish says, “Only up to five to ten minutes of steaming as it may cause the same effects as a hot shower.”
7. 20 minutes to two hours – and overnight is strictly no-no
Although we’re often told to leave oil on overnight, the benefits of oil lie in a small window of time, amount, and temperature - and going beyond this can cause damage.
Dr Darwish says, “The maximum time which I tell my patients is two hours. Leaving oil overnight is strictly prohibited.” Why?
• It can change the pH of the scalp
Our scalp is usually at pH of 5.5, and coconut oil, to pick one example, is actually at a pH of 7 to 8.
Dr Rezgui explains, “If applied for a short period, that’s fine, but if you apply a big amount and keep it for a long time, it can cause imbalance, cause the hair to be more fragile, drier in the long run and more prone to hair fall.”
• It can make your scalp more dry
Putting oil on your scalp can suppress your natural oils or sebum production, and lead to more dryness over time, explains Dr Rezgui.
• It can feed dandruff-causing fungus
“For dandruff, we know that the fungus is nourished by sebum so the more oil you use, the more dandruff you will have,” says Dr Rezgui.
• It can clog your pores and cause scalp acne and infections
Dr Darwish says, “It can clog the pores, occluding the hair and scalp when you’re sleeping and instead of doing good, it will lead to damaged hair and breakouts on the scalp, especially if you have an oily scalp. You can get pimples on your scalp, and eventually it will lead to hair loss because it completely changes the scalp condition.”
8. Shampoo twice to remove all oil residue on scalp
“If they leave any oil on the scalp, the build-up will cause hair breakage, damages and hair loss in the scalp,” says Dr Darwish. She recommends shampooing your hair twice.
9. Use cool or lukewarm water for rinses
“Hot water takes the nutrition away from hair, and it can cause dandruff and sensitivity to the scalp,” says Dr Darwish.
10. Post-shower, apply only on ends if desired
Applying oil on your scalp after a shower not only does not help with absorption, but in fact clogs your pores and causes damage, explains Dr Darwish. Dr Rezgui advises, “If you’re using it as a leave-in conditioner, then stick to the ends only, don’t apply it to roots.”