It’s rush hour in Jaipur, and I’m careening across four lanes of traffic in the back of a rickshaw. Though lanes isn’t quite the right word—in Jaipur, there are no real lanes, just pockets of space for whoever (or whatever) can squeeze in first. My driver appears unfazed, cutting through lines of honking cars and the occasional sacred cow with the sereneness of someone operating a sailboat across the still waters of the Mediterranean. I’ve traveled 16 hours from New York City to arrive in the capital of India’s northern state of Rajasthan to learn more about a centuries-old hair tradition called "hair oiling" with Pantene. I have a week of beauty discovery ahead of me, but at the moment, I’m just trying to avoid falling out of a rickshaw.
Jaipur is called the Pink City because it was once painted entirely pink (the color of hospitality) to herald the visit of the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria in 1876. These days, most of the bright pink walls have faded to a terracotta-toned amber, but the city retains its vibrant, celebratory spirit. Streets are lined with stalls selling glistening hand-woven cashmere rugs, fragrant spices, and jewel-toned textiles draped and stacked from floor to ceiling. It’s easy to get distracted (and lighten your wallet) as you make your way down the lively outdoor markets, but there’s a thousand-year-old hair tradition waiting to be unearthed, and I must not get distracted. Now is the time to admit there’s a selfish reason for my eagerness to travel to Jaipur, and it has to do with my own fragile relationship with my hair—namely, that it’s changed drastically in the past year since I went from a low-maintenance balayage to an extremely high-maintenance platinum. My hair and I went from having an amicable, loving relationship to essentially having a world-shattering divorce (two rounds of bleach on the scalp can do that). Though I love my platinum and don’t see myself to my natural brunette anytime soon, my formerly laissez-faire approach to haircare is now no longer an option, unless I’m okay with my hair resembling the straw Rumpelstiltskin got his hands on before spinning it into gold. I want my hair to shimmery, light-reflecting gold, not straw, and am desperate for something that will make it forgive me for the trauma I’ve put it through. Hair oiling might just be the answer.
What exactly is hair oiling?
The centuries-old tradition, I come to learn, usually involves two steps: applying nutrient-rich oils throughout the hair, followed by an invigorating scalp massage. You have the option of following with your normal shampoo conditioner routine, or you can let it steep overnight before rinsing it out in the morning. The result is hair that’s noticeably softer, shinier, and stronger. “I am a huge fan of oiling,” says Vasudha Rai, Indian beauty expert and author of Glow: Indian Foods, Recipes and Rituals for Beauty, Inside Out. “I never get an in-salon mask or hair spa because just oiling makes my hair very strong and soft.” Indian women also count on it as a solution to hair loss and thinning hair, which they refer to as “hair fall.” “If someone is dealing with hair fall, I recommend they do it on a clean scalp so it gets absorbed without any dirt or sweat,” explains Mumbai-based hairstylist and hair salon-owner Lekha Shah as she gives me a hair oiling treatment of my own.
As Shah applies the oil mixture to my scalp and hair, gently massaging my head, I can understand why this tradition has gone on for thousands of years. I feel my city-person stress melting away, leaking out of my body through my brain into a gooey puddle. My adrenaline-spiking rickshaw ride from earlier that day feels like a distant memory. Shah tells me that beyond just the beauty benefits, hair oiling is also a tradition that brings women in the family together. “I remember my grandmother would do hair oiling on me when I was young, and as she was applying the oil to my hair, she would ask me all her questions about school, friends, my life,” she laughs. “It was our opportunity to really catch up during the week and bond.” I can see the appeal; I’m more relaxed and content than I’ve been in months, and I feel like Shah could ask me anything in my current state and I’d answer truthfully with a blissed-out smile on my face.
What oils do you use for hair oiling?
Most women in India like to mix and match the oils they use for hair oiling depending on their needs, but there’s after speaking with both Rai and Shah, I noticed one common denominator: castor oil. “Castor oil is known as the king of oils in India,” Shah informs me. “Castor oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are great for the hair and skin.” She goes on to say that castor can do everything from minimize wrinkles to spur hair growth to even help your eyelashes grow longer (“I could see an immediate difference once I applied it,” she swears). She prefers to do oiling with a blend of castor, olive, coconut and almond. “Castor oil on your scalp releases heat from your body,” Rhai reveals. “I use it once a week in the winter, or mix with other oils—like half almond, half castor, or half sesame, half castor. It makes the hair very thick and strong.” The R&D team for Pantene zeroed in on castor oil as a hero ingredient and infused it into its Damage Control shampoo and conditioner, a sulfate-free duo that gently cleanses your hair while also adding the strengthening element of hair oiling without the commitment. I haven’t let a sulfate touch my hair since I went platinum, so was excited to try the shampoo and conditioner duo the next morning after Shah sent me on my way with oiled-up strands.
Castor oil is known as the king of oils in India.
Beyond castor, Rhai tells me she likes to rotate between her oils, opting for the traditional ayurvedic bhringaraj oil when she’s experiencing hair fall and the lighter apricot oil, which can be applied to the scalp, face, and body because it benefits the skin, too (“it makes the hair super shiny and can also be used as a serum in a pinch,” she says). When she’s experiencing dandruff, she opts for moringa oil, which she says can help reduce dandruff while making the hair feel silky-soft.
Does hair oiling work?
The next morning, I was shocked to find that my hair—drenched in oil before my head hit my pillow—had almost completely soaked in the oiling treatment overnight. I shampooed and conditioned with Pantene’s sulfate-free Damage Control shampoo and conditioner, and met up with Shah again for a blow-dry. When I ran my fingers through my hair once it was dried, I couldn’t believe it—my strands felt ridiculously soft. Turns out, all I had to do was travel 7,000 miles to discover the secret to spinning my straw-like head of hair into golden silk. It makes sense—applying the oils to dry strands adds a layer of protection before hitting your strands with a detergent-based shampoo and allows it to soak in the nutrient-rich oils to improve its strength.
How do you do hair oiling in the modern age?
I left Jaipur with a bag full of hand-painted ceramics for my friends, brightly-patterned pajamas for my family, and a traditional Indian hair secret that’s changed the way my hair looks, feels, and behaves. Nowadays, I try not to shampoo my hair without oiling beforehand, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Life in New York City life doesn’t always allow me to luxuriate in self-scalp massage each time, but I do try to at least massage the oils in for a few minutes and make sure to saturate my strands. I have a bottle of castor oil from India I’ll use, but also use my hair oil from Prose, which is customized specifically for my hair based on the answer to this quiz. I do this once a week, and my hair feels noticeably stronger and softer than it did before.
The best part of hair oiling is that you can customize it for your lifestyle and hair type. “I apply the oil for at least 20 minutes if not longer, or overnight on the weekends,” Rai tells me when I ask about her routine. “I first pour the oil four fingers from my hairline at the point called the adhipati marma, which is the master marma point located at the top of the head. Then I massage it all over my scalp. If I find the roots are dry anywhere, I will apply more oil at those spots. I give my head a good, vigorous massage for about five minutes and apply the leftover oil down the strands and ends.” If you’re feeling especially ambitious, Rai says you can take a hot, steaming towel and wrap it around your head turban-style for a few minutes after hair oiling to help the oils penetrate even deeper.
Other brands have launched pre-shampoo treatments in recent years, but I still find that using castor and other natural oils make the biggest difference in how my hair and scalp feels. In this case and for my hair specifically, natural is better—and there’s thousands of years of Indian beauty culture and tradition as proof.
This trip was paid for by Pantene. Thoughts and opinions are author's own.