If you're like many, it was a childhood ritual to sit in between your mother's knees and wait (semi) patiently as she parted and oiled your scalp to prepare it for styling. You may have even had that ubiquitous jar of Ultra Sheen sitting in your bathroom. If you're wondering, "Should you put oil on your scalp?" you're not alone. The reality is that it depends on your preferences as well as the condition of your scalp.
For some, the feeling of massaging a light oil into a dry scalp pre-styling offers hydration. For others, applying moisture-rich products to the hair (versus the scalp—especially if it's oily—might be a better alternative. To get the details on what ingredients are best for use on the scalp, we reached out to experts Bridgette Hill and Mona Gohara. Here, they share how to properly oil the scalp and dish on the best practices for using oil in your haircare routine.
Meet the Expert
Below, learn everything there is to know about using oil on your scalp, from the benefits, to how often to oil your scalp, to the best oil to use without buildup.
What is Scalp Oiling?
Oiling your scalp is meant to provide hydration to dried, malnourished strands. It is seen as a treatment for dehydrated hair follicles and to prep the hair for styling.
The Benefits of Oiling Your Scalp
Using oil as a pre-poo has many benefits. The practice can prevent hygral fatigue, restore moisture, and protect hair follicles during the washing process. For this reason, Hill recommends a weekly massage with oils that stimulate the scalp. "Peppermint, tea tree, and citrus-based oils can enhance circulation and decongest the scalp," she says. These benefits make oil an optimal pre-shampoo addition.
It is important to dilute any essential oil you use with a carrier oil (like jojoba, sweet almond, or coconut oil) to prevent irritation. You can also buy oils that are already diluted with a carrier.
How to Oil Your Scalp
"Start your massage at the nape of the neck, using both hands, work your fingers up the head to the crown," says Hill. "Then work from the base of the ear to the top of the head on both sides. There's a lot of area to cover, so take your time. Spend three to five minutes massaging the appropriate oil into the scalp to soften skin cells, exfoliate, and remove debris to encourage blood flow." We feel more relaxed already.
For protective styles, Hill recommends a proper scalp treatment sealed with a detoxifying scalp oil applied directly to the scalp. "Invest in color applicator bottles that have a nozzle with the proper width and length small enough to pierce through the lace of a wig and netting of the wig cap." She says these tools are essential to be able to care for the scalp and hair properly. "Apply oils that have cleansing, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal/bacteria properties. As well as scalp serums or tonics that nourish and cleanse the scalp under the wig."
How Often to Oil Your Scalp
How often you use oil depends on your hair, lifestyle, and most importantly, your scalp. In general, "It depends on your own biology. There is no rule here," says Gohara. "Some may need to hydrate once a week while others may need to every day. For some of my patients with psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis, I recommend a medicated scalp oil at night, each night, or a few times in a few weeks depending on hair washing preferences."
Regardless of how often you oil your scalp, "When properly used, oils should never promote build-up on the scalp," comments Hill. So, buildup on the scalp shouldn't worry you too much as long are you're using oils as a pre-poo cleansing, anti-inflammatory option, as our expert mentioned above. If you're still concerned about the potential of buildup or a flakey scalp, try a water-based scalp remedy (more on that below).
Does Scalp Oil Work For All Hair Types?
"I do not suggest oils for managing dandruff," Hill notes. "A big misconception is that applying oil directly to the scalp relieves dandruff. As previously stated, pre-shampoo scalp oiling may be okay to use when treating dandruff. [However,] it depends on the severity of the problem. Our scalps are a delicate microbiome made up of healthy yeast, called Malassezia, and other necessary bacteria."
"Certain oils can feed and disrupt the balance of bacteria, which promotes the development of unhealthy bacteria." As a result of the disruption, Hill says, "The accumulation of rapidly shedding skin cells, dandruff, along with a buildup of excess oil and sebum, can create a larger dandruff and scalp problem." For those that deal with dandruff, Hill suggests sticking with water-based tonics. We like Design Essentials Peppermint & Aloe Soothing Scalp Tonic ($11). And for additional scalp maintenance, use a scalp scrub, such as Ouai Scalp & Body Scrub ($38), to remove flaking skin and product buildup.
Shop the Best Scalp Oils
A go-to oil for naturals is coconut oil. Unfortunately, coconut oil, even in all its moisturizing glory, doesn't work on all hair types. If you have low porosity hair, give this oil a try. Made with sunflower, grapeseed, and baobab oils, the inflammatory mixture is meant to be used as a scalp treatment to reduce dandruff and promote hair growth.
Because avocado oil is lighter compared to others, it's quick-absorbing and doesn't feel as greasy—ideal for those just getting their start in scalp oils.
This hair oil by Ouai gets Gohara's seal of approval. It comes packed with nourishing ingredients, like borage oil, galanga root extract, and ama oil. She adds, "As some people may not like using hair oils, as an alternative I recommend First Aid Beauty Anti-Dandruff Scalp Serum with 2% Salicylic Acid ($32) to help fight dandruff and relieve dry scalp from distress and discomfort."
This multi-purpose hair and scalp oil features a formula rich in essential oils to prevent dry scalp.
This organic black castor oil promises to encourage hair growth and repair damaged scalps with its conditioning and strengthening properties.
Can you oil your scalp every day?
Those who have dry scalp and no dandruff or those who just want to hydrate their scalp and roots may benefit from daily oiling. For those with more oily hair adding more scalp oils may not be the best option.
How often should you oil your scalp if you have braids?
According to Gohara, oil can be used at the root of the braid every night for some, while others may want to do it a couple of times a week or every few weeks.
Can oiling your scalp make hair grow?
Gavazzoni Dias MF. Hair cosmetics: an overview. Int J Trichology. 2015;7(1):2-15. doi:10.4103/0974-7753.153450