For many of us, oiling the scalp has been an age-old hair care practice passed down from our parents, who learnt from their parents, and their parents before them. We have been taught that oiling our scalps is the remedy (whether in part or full) for almost any and every hair care issue we may face. Does your scalp feel itchy? Oil it. Want to boost the speed at which hair grows from your scalp? Oil it. Have you got flakes on your scalp? Easy fix - oil it.
Oiling our scalps has become synonymous with proper hair and scalp care. So much so that even if there is no particular issue, not including it in our weekly (or sometimes even daily) hair care routines would be a trigger for raised eyebrows. But what if this beloved practice of ours is not doing us as much good as we thought, or hoped? What if, in some ways, it was actually the cause and/or catalyst of our scalp issues - rather than the cure? In this blog post, we will walk through why many hair and scalp specialists and medical professionals are quick to discourage people from oiling their scalps.
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A Healthy Scalp Naturally Produces Oil
The scalp naturally produces a type of oil called sebum. This is the most densely packed area of skin on the body with terminal hairs. Given that the sebaceous glands are usually attached to the hair follicles, it makes sense that the scalp typically produces more sebum than most other parts of the skin. To be precise, a normal healthy scalp in adults will produce about 1.2-1.5g of sebum every single day. For context, that’s about the same ‘pea-sized’ amount of toothpaste you would use to brush your teeth.
Now besides its obvious lubricating and waterproofing properties, the sebum your scalp produces plays a number of very important roles. These include, but are not limited to; regulating the pH of your scalp, providing protection from UV light, and aiding in the barrier formation of your skin. The production of such comparatively high amounts of sebum, however, makes the scalp an ideal breeding ground for lipid-loving yeast and bacteria. This is the basis on which the presence of excess oil on the scalp, whether produced naturally or applied supplementarily, can quickly become problematic.
Side Effects of Excess Oil on Your Scalp
Bacteria like Cutibacterium Acnes can be found in abundance in the follicles of a healthy scalp. Though the presence of this bacteria isn’t normally a cause for concern, given that they are lipid feeding, when there is excess oil on the scalp they can grow out of control and cause scalp acne.
The Malassezia yeast behaves in a similar manner when in a lipid-rich environment. Several decades of research has linked this particular yeast to common scaly scalp conditions like seborrheic dermatitis, cradle cap, and all-too-common dandruff.
The belief that an overwhelming majority of people hold is that a flaky scalp automatically equates to scalp dryness, and that oiling the scalp is the only logical way to remedy that dryness. It should be noted that flakes can and often are a symptom of a dry scalp. But not all scalp flaking is equal. Flakes from a dry scalp are typically much smaller and whiter in colour than flakes from an oily scalp. After years of consulting on various scalp conditions, I’m more inclined to argue that flaking is more commonly seen as a feature of a scalp that is excessively oily, as opposed to one that is dry. Precisely for the reasons laid out directly above.
The unfortunate and vicious cycle that perpetuates as a result of the belief, is that many who suffer from dandruff and other flaky scalp conditions caused by the Malassezia yeast, religiously apply oils to their scalps. In reality, this supplementary oil that was meant to remedy the condition is more likely to be contributing to the further growth of the yeast causing the problem in the first instance. Furthermore, a natural by-product of experiencing these scalp conditions is the impeded barrier function of the skin. When the skin is compromised, it makes it less capable of carrying out the important protective functions laid out earlier in this post.
Using Oils Safely on the Scalp
Based on what we explored above, there is a strong case to avoid piling oils directly onto your scalp and leaving them there - especially in the absence of frequent shampooing. Unless you have a specific prescription by a skin and/or scalp specialist for a specific purpose/condition.
Nonetheless, oils can still be helpful to the scalp when utilised properly. One of the best ways to use oils to your scalp’s advantage is through pre-wash scalp treatments. For example, you can apply a warm oil mix to the scalp before your shower, like Curlsmith Intense Treatment Serum. This can help support your scalp in the formation and preservation of its barrier (especially if you are prone to dry skin), as well as increase blood flow to the scalp.
Some particular essential oils, like peppermint or tea tree, also offer anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties to prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria on the scalp and remedy any accompanying disease from existing scalp conditions. If you are going to make use of such scalp treatments, you can just leave it on for about 30 minutes before washing your hair and scalp. This will be sufficient to reap its benefits without putting your scalp at risk of the potential issues highlighted earlier in this post.
How to Break the Oiling Habit
Ultimately, it can be tough to break a habit, especially one that has been fuelled by a lifetime of misinformation. Now, we’re not saying that you need to throw out all the oils you have in your hair care cupboard and never buy one again. The goal here is primarily to provide you with the facts about some of the proven and likely effects and outcomes of piling oils on your scalp.
Next time you feel the urge to reach for that oil jar, you can now make an informed decision about whether oiling your scalp will be necessary and/or actually helpful in solving the issue you intend for it to solve. As long as you leave it on for a limited amount of time, you will be able to reap all its benefits without the downsides.
Oiling Your Scalp with Curlsmith
If you still want to nourish your scalp, but you now want to move away from oils, Curlsmith has the solution for you. The Scalp Stimulating Booster and Full Lengths Density Elixir are water-based scalp serums that provide all the stimulating benefits of oils without the downsides. You can use them daily, one in the morning and the other one at night, to support a healthy scalp, reduce itchiness and encourage hair growth.