This post was last updated on August 12, 2021 by Preethi Sukumaran
Oiling of the skin and scalp is a uniquely Ayurvedic practice that has been suggested for thousands of years in India to balance vata dosha in the body, to remove excess Pitta in the hair, calm and soothe the brain, improve and aid the working of the eyes, and keep both hair and skin in good working condition. Oiling for Keshya (hair) and Oiling and Massage of body (Abhyanga) form 2 very important Ayurvedic daily health routines (Dinacharya) to help the body stay in a state of balance.
You may be surprised at the use of the word “Dina” or daily when it comes to hair oiling. Many of us have now completely stopped hair oiling and can only remember daily oiling as a much hated childhood practice. However, daily hair oiling is considered a must in Ayurveda to maintain not just the strength and colour of the hair, but also aid the working of the brain and the eyes.
The Charaka Samhita 5th Sutrasthana deals with matters of diet, digestion, Dinacharya (daily routine), hair oiling, abhyanga, oral hygiene, etc. As we have discussed before, the speciality of Ayurveda is its emphasis not just on disease management, but also on preventive health care. The various Acharyas have emphasised that by following the right diet (pathya) and the right daily routine (Dinacharya), we can avoid or treat almost 85% of all diseases in the early stage itself. Only the balance 15% diseases require the intervention of a specialised doctor or medicines.
The shloka on hair oiling in this chapter describes the benefits of hair oiling thus:
“One who applies taila on his head everyday does not suffer from a headache, balding, greying of hair, or hair fall. Regular hair oiling strengthens the skull, hair becomes firm and deep rooted, and grows long and black. The sense organs are in good health, there is sound sleep and the face radiates with tejas”.
It is interesting to note the use of the phrase “one does suffer from hair greying”. This means that the hair stays black well past an acceptable age with hair oiling. This is observed anecdotally by most of us who remember our grandparents or great grandparents greying much later than what we have experienced. (In our family, we have seen portraits of our ancestors with mildly grey hair well into their seventies, without the use of any hair dyes.)
A very important reason to oil your hair is to improve your eye sight and vision according to Ayurveda. Of all the 5 Pancha Mahabutha (5 great elements), the element of Fire provides vision in the eye. This element of Fire is cushioned in a layer of fat present in the eye. Similarly the brain is fired by the workings of the neurons which generate electricity and heat in the brain. The brain is also made up largely of fat.
The key to maintain the workings of both the Eyes and the Brain is to cool the organs so that the layer of the fat remains stable and is not liquefied due to high heat. This is why the practice of hair oiling helps channelize excess heat generated out of the body so that brain and eye are maintained at the right temperature.
How do we incorporate oiling to protect our hair in 3 common situations? This post will give you suggestions on this.
Step 1: Understand your hair.
Our hair is unique to our prakriti (constitution) which is itself born out of the combination of the 3 doshas in our body. So our hair colour, length, thickness, etc, is all special to us.
Some of us have fine hair which is silky and the strand thickness is low. This kind of hair tends to get oily very quickly , and look “flat” when a lot of oil is applied. This kind of hair usually goes with a normal – oily scalp.
If nourished well, this hair usually tends to grow long, is silky and glossy. If this hair is left un-oiled, and washed frequently, it tends to need very frequent washing, starts to thin, and becomes finer in texture , tangling and breaking easily.
This kind of hair needs regular oiling with a small amount of oil, and the use of a mild cleansing hairwash that does not aggravate the sebaceous glands and increase sebum production.
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Some of us have very thick hair that tends to be curly or wavy. This kind of hair can take in a lot of oil, and if left un-nourished, the scalp and hair can get very dry. If left un-oiled, this hair can get very frizzy, form split ends and tangle and break easily.
If nourished well, this hair tends to be full, thick, and voluminous.
This hair requires regular oiling and washing with an extremely gentle and mild hairwash product. The use of a nourishing mask occasionally also helps.
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If your scalp has stubborn dandruff, then oiling with bitter herbs can greatly reduce the appearance of dandruff and prevent its spreading. However, in this condition, regular hair oil , especially plain coconut oil, meant for hair growth should not be used as it can increase the dandruff and trigger its spread.
This kind of hair will see scalp that is itchy or flaking, with prominent visible creamy or yellowish looking flakes. When the dandruff spreads, the hair associated with the flakes becomes weak rooted and falls. A temporary relief is brought on when hair is washed which subsides in a day or two and re-starts the itchiness.
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Chemically damaged hair:
Chemically damaged hair is usually highly porous due to breaks in the cuticular structure with poor / inadequate production of sebum. The scalp is usually heat or chemically damaged as well and can often have an itching / burning sensation especially if synthetic hair colour is frequently used.
This kind of hair is unable to absorb heavy oils, and needs a lighter, and easier to absorb hair oil with hair repairing and restorative herbs. This hair usually displays the symptoms of both dry and chemically damaged hair: so the hair is frizzy, untameable, tangles easily, breaks easily on combing, and breaks in the presence of water due to its porous nature. Hair growth is usually extremely slow and premature greying also tends to be high.
Chemically damaged hair should be weaned away completely from synthetic hair colours, heat based straightening, blow drying or any form of chemical or heat treatment. It should be washed less frequently than other kinds of hair and should be oiled regularly with moderate amounts of restorative hair oil.
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Hair that has been damaged by Illness and long term medication:
Hair damage and hair loss can also occur due to long term illnesses, ailments like PCOD and PCOS, hormone treatments, IUI, fertility treatments, PCOD and PCOS, use of birth control pills, etc. Here we see hair is much weakened where it is shallow rooted and easily falls on washing, brushing or combing. Depending on the nature of the illness, we can also see other issues like male pattern baldness, hair thinning, extremely slow or impaired growth, etc.
Illness damaged hair should be weaned completely away from synthetics. It should be oiled with minimal amount of oil in a very gentle manner, frequently (4 – 5 times a week). The hair should be washed very infrequently and special care should be taken to ensure a healthy lifestyle and diet is being followed. Dincharyas like the Abhyanga help enormously.
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Hair oiling for hair protection:
Water and Air dry out hair by removing its protective layer of oils. So hair must be well coated with oil if it is going to be subjected to high amounts of water or air.
So if you sit in an air conditioned office, drive a bike, have a long commute in the car or plan to wash your hair, your hair needs to be oiled in advance to protect the hair strands.
Oiling to protect hair during washing:
This means that before you wash your hair you must oil the strands and scalp thoroughly and generously until there is a thin coating of oil on the hair. So when your hair is washed, the shampoo removes this external coating of oil, leaving your sebum intact. When this is done, the sebum moves through the hair strands sealing cracks in the cuticular structure, strengthen the hair, prevent split ends and add shine and gloss to hair.
To sum up: If you plan to wash your hair, oil your hair and scalp generously with a good amount of the appropriate hair oil. The hair and scalp should glisten with enough excess oil, so that the hairwash only works on removing this excess oil from the hair and scalp.
Oiling to protect hair from the AC
If you are constantly in an air conditioned environment, apply a light coating of oil to the hair strands ensuring the oil seals the hair from the cold and drying air emitted by the AC. You can also additionally add a physical barrier to your hair by wrapping it in a scarf.
Ensure you stay hydrated in an air conditioned environment by drinking water whenever thirsty and avoid drying and water removing drinks like tea, coffee, artificial fruit juices and colas.
To sum up: If you are in an air conditioned office / air conditioned environment most of the time, ensure you are hydrated internally by drinking adequate amounts of water and avoid water depleting drinks. Seal your hair from the cold and drying wind by oiling it lightly with the appropriate oil. A scarf / bandana also help if you are under a direct blast of cold air.
Oiling to protect hair and scalp from high heat, dust and wind:
If you are constantly on a bike or a train or are driving long distances, you may have to deal with dust and wind in addition to a Car A.C. This again sucks moisture from hair and sometimes heats the whole body, drying up hair. Constant exposure to heat, dust and external wind can change colour of hair to a reddish brown, thin it and aggravate premature greying.
The hair needs protection from these external elements and a physical barrier like a scarf or a bandana is recommended to completely wrap and protect hair. In addition, mild oiling of the hair strands and oiling of the scalp helps continuously remove accumulated heat to ensure your pitta dosha is not imbalanced. A regular abhyanga is also strongly recommended every week to bring down accumulated dosha imbalance.
To sum up: If you are commuting every day, please oil your hair and scalp everyday or atleast thrice a week with small amounts of the right oil. Also invest in a scarf or a bandana to thoroughly wrap and cover your hair.
In our next post, we will look why hair oiling helps nourish the scalp and why it supports hair growth and also the right technique for hair oiling to promote hair growth.