Welcome to Afro Answers! Each month, I’ll be choosing two topics to unpack, using scientific knowledge and my personal experience as a hairdresser and trichologist to reveal why everything you thought you knew about afro hair is wrong. In this first column, you’ll learn about why greasing your scalp isn’t good for your hair health and how often you should wash afro hair.
Should I grease my scalp?
Blue Magic, Ultra Sheen, Sulphur8, DooGro and Dax. I would bet money that you had at least one of these hair products in your house growing up. Hours were spent in between the legs of family members or adopted aunties as they tugged and pulled at your hair while you protested, before getting hit with a comb.
My personal fave was Blue Magic. I loved the smell and how shiny (read: greasy) my scalp would be after. But as I got older and started taking care of my own hair, I skipped this step a lot and found my hair didn’t suffer. It got me thinking, was my whole childhood a scam?
It has been at least 10 years since I stopped greasing my scalp and many people still think I am crazy. It wasn’t until I studied trichology that I fully grasped the science of why my hair has continued to flourish despite the regular greasing.
Every hair on our head is connected to a sebaceous gland that secretes a substance called sebum. It is an oily, waxy mix of chemicals that will protect, lubricate and moisturise the skin and hair. The sebum is what makes some textures of hair look greasy after just a few days – however, in Afro hair it has a harder time spreading out and is more concentrated around the scalp.
The body works by continually monitoring its environment and adjusting its response, so when we grease or oil our scalp, effectively we are telling the sebaceous glands to kick back and we will handle it. That would be ok if 1. We didn’t have a whole system designed to do it already 2. The products we used matched the natural secretion and were not harmful. The products I listed are mostly relics because people have realised that the ingredients, such as petroleum and mineral oil, generally do not help and may even harm in the long term. The naturalista of today is more likely to use an oil or butter but the same problems still arise.
Not only are these products a bad match for the delicate skin of the scalp, but they can also contribute to skin conditions and make the symptoms much worse.
The skin is host to many organisms that are generally harmless, but poor hair care can lead to conditions that encourage their growth and more visible symptoms. Seborrhoeic dermatitis is extremely common but often goes undiagnosed as dandruff or dry scalp. The common remedy is to oil the scalp, which will only feed the yeast that is responsible and make the condition worse. There are studies that have shown using oils on the scalp (even organic) can lead to inflammation, redness and chronic itching.
Now, I know that when my scalp starts to look dry or get itchy, it’s usually time for a wash. These symptoms are all my body’s way of telling me that it is starting to get distressed, greasing at this point will silence this alarm for a short while but does not address the issue.
Stopping using oils on your scalp cold turkey can be hard and it will take a few weeks for the sebum production to re-regulate, but stay strong. In the meantime, you can use a scalp lotion or hydrosol (aloe vera or rosewater) directly on any dry areas.
Still not convinced? I recorded a podcast will fellow Trichologist, Stephanie Sey on the topic
How often should afro hair be washed?
The memes depicting wash day struggle of being natural are rife. I mean, we have all missed out on events because we are washing our hair, right? The process of pre-poo, shampoo, deep conditioning, detangling and then waiting for what seems like years for our hair to dry can make people just weak thinking about it – the apprehension it brings can keep wash days few and far between.
One positive is that we actually don’t necessarily need to wash our hair daily like those with straighter textures. Afro hair is generally very tightly coiled so the sebum (natural oils produced by the scalp) have a hard time travelling down the hair shaft, meaning it is more prone to dryness. However, the skin on the scalp sheds, we sweat and it needs to be cleaned often. Our environment and hair habits can also determine how regularly we need to wash our hair.
Some of the consequences of not washing regularly are smell, inflammation and even hair loss!
A good shampoo, like my scalp treatment shampoo, will remove all of the dirt and grease accumulated over time and should not damage or dry out the hair. More focus should be placed on the scalp. A quality product does all the work so you don’t have to scrub or scratch. Using a conditioner that is suited to your hair’s needs (ie dry, fine, coloured), will smooth the hair and replace lost moisture that is so essential to Afro hair.
Typically, I recommend that everyone should be washing their hair at least once every seven to 10 days regardless of the style it is in. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but more based on logic, I mean, would you forgo cleaning any other body part for this long? We tend to use more products on our hair which can build up and prevent nutrients from penetrating. In fact “protective styles”, like braids and twists, quickly become damaging when they are not taken care of, this includes washing. This is because there is a build-up of dead skin, sebum and anything else we add which can irritate the scalp, plus if the style is too tight or heavy, the follicles will release the hair prematurely.
This is part of the Afro Answers column. Next time, Ebuni will be explaining why the porosity float test is wrong and spotlighting DIY you shouldn’t do at home.
If there are any afro hair questions you would like answers to in a future column, email them to [email protected] with the subject line “Afro Answers”