Should Naturals Be Using Oils on Our Scalps?

The answer is complicated — so we went to the experts.

Should You Be Using Oil on Your Scalp?
Photo: Getty Images/InStyle

No matter which part of the diaspora you're from, you've likely heard some iteration of the term "greasing your scalp" — and experienced it for yourself.

This tradition has been passed down for generations in Black homes, but whether it's actually beneficial for scalp and hair health is debatable.

"There is no need to grease the scalp, although this tradition lives on for many in the Black community despite its uselessness," says Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL. "I've heard stories that slaves would apply ointment to their scalps to keep fleas and ticks away from their heads. More recently, I find that many patients apply petrolatum and oil-based products to their scalps to fight seborrheic dermatitis, which can cause scaly, dry patches, and plaques throughout the scalp."

That said, let's dig a little deeper into this practice to figure out what's what and discover how to properly care for both your scalp and natural hair at home.

Can Using Oil on Your Scalp Help Curb Dandruff and Dryness — or Does It Make Things Worse?

Well, we already know where Dr. Hartman stands on this issue. And fellow board-certified derm Dr. Elyse Love agrees that most use oils on the scalp as a means to help alleviate seborrheic dermatitis (aka eczema of the scalp).

"Dry skin is a common trigger for eczema and moisture can help prevent flares and soothe skin," Dr. Love explains. "Seborrheic dermatitis is actually caused by excess scalp oil. It is more common in ethnic hair types, partly because we wash our scalps less often than other hair types. So, oiling the scalp improves the appearance of the flaking in the moment, but feeds the condition in the long run."

To get a bit more technical, Dr. Hartman further explains that the yeast that causes seborrheic dermatitis, known as Malassezia spp., actually finds most hair oils to be delicious. So all in all, you're not really doing yourself any favors by greasing your scalp.

"What the scalp usually needs is consistent, gentle cleansing — typically at least once every seven days," Dr. Love adds.

Can Certain Oils Help Curb Hair Loss?

Technically, yes, some do. But the data in this area is still lacking, which makes it hard for doctors to come to any hard conclusions.

"There are a few studies to support peppermint oil, rosemary oil, and cedarwood oil as promoting hair growth," says Dr. Hartman. "One study compared rosemary oil to minoxidil for the treatment of androgenetic alopecia and found it to be as efficacious."

Still, Dr. Love suggests proceeding with caution when figuring out a DIY cocktail for hair loss (and honestly, it's just a better idea to go see a dermatologist anyways).

"Hair oils may be beneficial for supporting moisture and strength leading to less hair loss from breakage when used on the hair strands," she explains. "Miracle fruit seed oil particularly has a small amount of data to support this, but many oils likely provide a similar benefit."

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Aside From Oils, What Are Other Methods of Keeping the Scalp Moisturized?

"Our scalps have the highest concentration of oil glands on the body, and in kinkier hair types, that oil tends to remain on the scalp instead of traveling down the hair shaft. For that reason, the scalp rarely needs added moisture," says Dr. Love. "Instead, we should focus on supporting our natural microbiome and oil production. I recommend gentle shampoos followed by deep conditioning of the hair at least once every seven days with careful attention to cleansing and rinsing product from the scalp."

Dr. Hartman agrees, adding that using exfoliating scalp masks and ingredients like diluted apple cider vinegar on wash days definitely helps. He also advises that anyone experiencing issues with their roots should avoid drying ingredients.

And when in doubt, go see a board-certified dermatologist.

"I've seen patients have undiagnosed fungal infections for years that caused unnecessary hair loss to occur because of the inflammation that was allowed to fester," Dr. Hartman warns. "All scaly or dry scalps are not created equally and establishing a diagnosis is paramount to successful treatment and preservation of a healthy head of hair."

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