Hair Oil Gets a Slick Reboot


Hair oiling days for the comedian and actress Lilly Singh were always a family affair.

The entire Singh clan — including her cousins, aunties and uncles down the street — would gather in the living room, each waiting to have their scalps rigorously massaged by her mother or grandmother.

“Yes, it was good for hair,” she said in a recent interview. “But it was also just — for lack of a better word — a vibe.”

The good vibes remained until Ms. Singh started high school, where the shiny, oiled look was seen as decidedly uncool by her peers, a perception that she and her cousins internalized. “I don’t think I ever did a slicked-back braid in high school ever — I’d rather jump off a building,” she deadpanned.

It’s a familiar childhood story for many women of color, who remember washing their hair before the start of a new week to avoid taunts at school or stares in public.

“My parents are Pakistani, and I’ve been hair oiling since I had hair,” said Kirin Bhatty, a celebrity makeup artist who grew up in Los Angeles. “I hated it as a kid because when you’re a kid, you want to be like everyone else, and no one else was hair oiling. I just wanted, at the time, to have an Herbal Essences moment.”

Like Ms. Singh, she abandoned her weekly ritual when she went off to college.

But lately, in sharp contrast with the hair hygiene practices of the late 1990s and early 2000s — when dry shampoo was whipped out at even the slightest sign of grease and near-daily hair washes were de rigueur — oiled hair has become a distinct part of the “It” girl look.

On TikTok, where the hashtag #hairoiling has garnered almost two billion views, young women post videos of themselves heading to the gym or running errands wearing the kind of greasy ponytails that Ms. Singh would have never left the house in. One influencer, Nicole Mehta, wore an oiled bun to a New York Fashion Week show. Another, Diipa Büller-Khosla, slicked her hair back to walk down the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. In one TikTok video, the influencer and model Valeria Lipovetsky shows her followers how to achieve her “wet hair” look using oils and masks.

“You want the hair looking dirty and greasy and weird,” she jokes in the video.

Celebrities like Hailey Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Sofia Richie — who have powerful sway over larger style trends — have shared in recent years that they slather their hair with oil, too. And in February, Beyoncé told Essence magazine that the hair oil in her new hair care line, Cécred, was inspired by the oiling practices of her mother, Tina Knowles.

“People are always asking me, like, ‘Hey, I saw this on TikTok — which oil do you think is good for my hair?’” said Xavier Velasquez, a celebrity hair stylist whose clients include Maria Sharapova and Olivia Wilde. “They kind of want an easy way out of having to style their hair in the humidity or after getting out of a pool or at the beach.”

The trend is part of a broader shift that some industry experts are calling the “skinification” of hair — a renewed focus on nourishing one’s scalp and hair through multistep routines rather than merely styling it. Sales of scalp care products grew 24 percent in the first quarter compared with the same time last year, according to the market research firm Circana, compared with 9 percent growth in the overall hair segment. And growth in hair oil sales, the firm found, has outpaced the total category by more than 1.5 times so far this year.

Sephora has also seen “a significant shift in consumer preference” toward products that address scalp concerns and hair thinning and a “growing interest” in hair oils, Jennifer Lucchese, the company’s vice president for hair care merchandising, said in an email statement.

With skin care, “people started to move away from just color and cosmetics to ‘wait, what if my baseline skin was great?’” said Rooshy Roy, the founder and chief executive of Aavrani, an ayurvedic skin care brand that branched out with a hair care line in collaboration with Ms. Singh. “I think that shift is happening with hair care.” Aavrani’s hair products — which include an oil and a serum — quickly sold out after hitting Sephora’s Canada website in March.

Consumers are now focused on elevating “that foundational level of hair,” Ms. Roy said.

Mentions of oiling the scalp and hair can be found in thousand-year-old ayurvedic texts from the Indian subcontinent, where the term “champi” and its derivatives translates to “massage” and is the origin of the word shampoo.

An Indian entrepreneur, Sake Dean Mahomed, helped spread the practice in the West in 1814, when he opened a bathhouse in Brighton, England, that offered a champi featuring Indian herbs and oils, presenting it as a treatment for all kinds of health concerns. It became so popular among aristocrats that he was appointed the “shampooing surgeon” for King George IV.

Ms. Büller-Khosla, who is also the founder of the skin and hair care brand Indē Wild, based her hair oil on a recipe that her mother brewed at home for decades. It includes castor oil, sesame oil, hibiscus flowers and native Indian herbs. The United States has become the brand’s biggest market since it introduced the oil two years ago, she said. (For the record, at 65, her mother, who features prominently in Indē Wild’s branding, has a full head of lush hair that reaches down to her ankles.)

Other cultures have long had their own versions of hair oil, too. In Latina communities, scalp care often features ingredients like maracujá (passion fruit) or acai oil. For Black women, moisturizing the scalp with oil is a common part of wash days, said Taylor Anise, who has used social media to document her journey back to wearing her natural hair.

Some people have mixed emotions about the new appreciation for an old, cherished ritual. Tensions came to the fore last year when a rosemary-mint hair oil sold by Mielle Organics, a long-admired and fiercely guarded brand among Black people, became so popular on TikTok after it was shared by a white influencer that it sold out in stores across the country. Some Black women were shocked and felt protective of the product, which was more than just a trend to them.

Similar feelings are bubbling up for some South Asian women lately. The recent boom in hair oil is an example of the “exoticization of our culture,” said Priya Satiani, a talent manager in Los Angeles who also remembers hair oiling as a central part of her childhood. “It’s a fine line — on the one hand, it’s amazing to be appreciated, but it’s also terrible to be appropriated.”

Many South Asians are now revisiting the cultural practice. Ms. Satiani said that she started oiling her 9-month-old niece’s hair as a way to pass on the tradition. Ms. Bhatty, the celebrity makeup artist, introduced hair oiling to her partner, and they have since turned it into a weekly self-care session.

Ms. Singh said: “This thing that I used to feel really insecure about and that I used to be made fun of is trendy — does that hurt me a little bit? Yeah, I won’t lie.”

“Now when I have oil in my hair, people will approach me and be like, ‘Your hair looks so good right now,’” she added. “And I’m like, ‘Where were you when I was in high school?’”


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