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Why the Indian ritual of hair oiling could be the secret to better hair

When was the last time you went to get your eyebrows threaded, or attended a yoga class or ordered a tumeric latte at your local Pret? Chances are you’ll be at least familiar with these Indian practices and rituals, which have over the years weaved their way into Western cultures. And now there’s hair oiling, the latest centuries-old ‘trend’ that could work wonders for your hair. For the uninitiated, hair oiling is an Ayurvedic beauty treatment that involves massaging oil into the scalp as a weekly, pre-wash treatment to encourage longer, stronger hair. 

It’s partly down to Season Two of the steamy period drama Bridgerton that we have to thank for the sudden interest in the ancient ritual. It was during a particularly poignant scene where the two Sharma sisters – the unapologetically, beautifully Indian sisters – were having a 1800s-version of a deep and meaningful conversation while big sister Kate rubbed oil in her younger sister Edwina’s scalp. As a London-born British Indian, watching the scene gave me goosebumps: it could easily have been me and my sisters as teens. It showed that the sentimental value of applying oil to the hair in Indian culture was as important as the beautifying ritual, and was just one of the ways that the Sharma sisters, played by Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran, championed their culture throughout the series.

For Anita Kaushal, the co-founder of the award-winning British Ayervedic beauty brand Mauli Rituals, hair oiling is just an extension of caring for our bodies. “Just as we use moisturisers on our face and oils on our body, it’s perfectly natural to use oil on the scalp to keep it nourished and in peak condition,” she tells me. “Hair oiling certainly influences the quality of the hair and therefore its density. You’ll feel the difference once it’s washed. Your hair will feel fuller, softer and shinier.” I am a longtime convert: I put my good hair condition (even with colouring every few months) down to a weekly ritual of oiling my scalp from a young age.

Inspired by sacred moments of conversation through hair oiling led the brother and sister duo Akash and Nikita Mehta to set up their brand Fable & Mane. As kids, their grandmother would tell them stories, or fables, as she oiling their hair once a week. And then as adults, when Nikita suffered some hair thinning and remedied it with certain Ayurvedic oils, the pair began developing their own unique blend. “During a time of hair loss and stress, we were reminded of the power of the Indian tradition of hair oiling and recalled a time when our grandmother would come from India and massage our head and hair with handcrafted blends of plant oils,” the Mehtas tell me.

The tradition of taking care of your hair with regular oiling originates from the Sanskrit word ‘sneha’ which means to oil and to love, but it’s a ritual rooted in science. “The head is the home of all sense organs and our nervous system. That is why head massage is a part of ayurvedic daily routine,” says Akash. “A scalp massage with essential oils relaxes your mind while stimulating your hair follicles and encouraging growth and density.”  Their instinct to bring their culture to the masses has proved fruitful: Fable & Mane is now one of the best-selling Ayurvedic hair care brands in the UK and was recently snapped up by Sephora in America. 

21 of the best hair oils and the surprising way to use them properly

The combination of caring for the scalp as well as the hair, and certain vitamin-rich ingredients (more on this later) is what makes hair oiling such a popular treatment for thinning hair conditions. Michelle Ranavat, the American-Indian founder of the luxury skin and hair care brand Ranavat (which recently became the first Ayurvedic brand to stock at Harrods in London) developing an effective pre-wash hair oil as a remedy to improve her postpartum hair loss after two children. And for social media influencer and entrepreneur Erim Kaur, developing her own brilliant hair oil was her way of bringing ancient rituals and modern haircare together. You only need to take one look at her impossibly glossy, waist-length natural hair to make you want to stock up on oils for your bathroom cabinet.

But with so many oils on the market, what ingredients should we be looking out for? There are some common oils that are found in many of the Ayurvedic blends for the hair. Vitamin C-rich amla oil is one of the most popular, known to stimulate hair growth and remedy a dry, itchy scalp. Ashwagandha, an Indian adaptogen that has regenerating and calming properties, is also a popular Ayurvedic ingredient. You may be familiar with it as a supplement to help alleviate stress, and in fact I swear by two capsules of Wild Nutrition’s KSM-66 Ashwagandha Plus supplement, £20.50, a day. 

Back to hair oils, and castor oil has long been used to help reduce inflammation on the scalp and encourage hair growth (the brilliant Indian-owned Blink Brow Bar even has castor oil for the brows in its BBB London range). Dashmool encourages good circulation on the scalp and bhringraj oil is ‘excellent for hair growth’, says Kaushal, who has it in her best-selling Grow Strong Hair Oil which she developed in 2014. Meanwhile Ranavat’s beautiful hair oil also contains jasmine oil to help control breakage and encourage hair growth. 

As for the best way to apply hair oil, as with so many ancient rituals, take your time with the process. For the Mehtas, the ritual of ‘abhyanga’, which is self-massage as an act of self-love in Sanskrit, starting with the energetic point on the top of our head, the crown chakra, is key. “By beginning your head massage at the crown, you will alleviate stress and tension from the roots,” says Akash. “A herbal hair oil with adaptogens calms down your nervous system and an oil head massage stretches the hair from the root and stimulates them to produce thicker individual strands.” Begin by warming a few drops of oil in your hands and placing them on the crown of your head, on dry hair. From there, massage into the scalp and use the remainder of the oil to brush through the ends with your fingers. For best results, leave the oil overnight and wash it out the next morning. 

Hair oiling isn’t the first time Indian culture has been appreciated in the West and it certainly won’t be the last. There’s yoga, which has become one of the most popular forms of modern exercise (and many classes often end with chanting the traditional Sanskrit word ‘namaste’, which means ‘I bow to you’). Ancient Indian culture has made it to our local coffee shops, too: a turmeric latte is the of-the-moment barista special. Did you know it’s been prescribed as a healing, anti-inflammatory remedy in India for centuries? Yes, the hair oiling ritual may be trendy for now, but it’s a trend with centuries of first-hand practice behind it. I’m glad it’s a ritual finally being celebrated globally.  

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