Sometimes I think back to those earlier days when my hair was still worthy of a L’Oreal ad. Sleek and smooth, soft and nourished — a complete contrast to its current condition. I often ask myself, “What happened?” When I started high school, I watched my classmates brandish their colored hair with newfound confidence: blonde to blue and brown to red. Who wouldn’t want that? So during my senior year, I tried to turn my hair burgundy wine. Of course, the color didn’t show unless I was outside on a sunny day (#AsianHairStruggles). Then college happened, and hair dyeing seemed like the perfect distraction before finals week.
Did all the hair dyes I experimented to cause the dryness I now live with? Or am I not getting enough nutrition? And what can I do to prevent it from getting worse?
While Asian hair is known for having the thickest diameter and fastest growth rate compared to Caucasian and African hair, it also has the lowest density (amount of hair strands) and hair cuticles that peel off more easily. From daily grooming routines and chemical treatments to the stress caused by society’s expectations, there are many factors that contribute to hair damage — so how can we reduce it?
Many hair products, such as shampoo, contain cleaning agents called surfactants. Surfactants not only generate foam but also weaken physicochemical forces that bind impurities and residues, such as sebum, to hair. Although surfactants are very effective for cleaning hair, they can also extract protective lipids, ultimately drying out our hair and weakening its shield against variables such as water and air.
This results in hygral fatigue, a type of stress from the repeated swelling and drying of hair. Due to its porous nature, our hair is capable of absorbing large amounts of water; this also causes our hair to swell, resulting in a frizzy appearance. The more damaged our hair is, the more porous it becomes and the more it stretches post-wash. It is also important to note that combing or brushing after washes can stretch damaged hair to its breaking point due to increased friction.
For Asians with pin-straight, jet black hair, dyes and curly perms can be a fun way to express individuality. However, these chemicals are often harsh and leave our once-silky hair dull and dry. Because hair fibers are non-living, they cannot be returned to their original structure after being damaged. That said, as long as our hair follicles (the living dermal tissue where hair fiber is generated) are not affected, there are steps we can take to prevent further damage.
One of the most popular methods today for hair rejuvenation involves the usage of essential oils and carrier oils in hair products. Both are derived from plants, yet essential oils are distilled from the plant itself and has a signature scent, whereas carrier oils have a more neutral smell and are used to dilute essential oils. Integrating these oils into our daily routines can reduce hygral fatigue, especially when applied before and after hair washes. These oils fill the gap between cuticle cells, preventing the penetration of surfactants and other aggressive substances, and limiting excessive swelling and deswelling of hair. Each oil has additional benefits, ranging from hair growth to anti-inflammation. For some examples, check out our research-tested list of essential oils and carrier oils below:
BERGAMOT ESSENTIAL OIL
Extracted from a plant of Italian origin, bergamot fruit is defined as a hybrid of bitter orange and lemon, its scent citrusy with a spicy-floral quality. Bergamot essential oil is also known for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, with a 2014 study finding that bergamot oil helps facilitate wound healing.
To tie this back to hair, a recent study found that treating scalp inflammation may reduce pattern hair loss. Not only can bergamot oil help promote hair growth, but it can also help maintain a healthy scalp. However, it can increase sun sensitivity, so it’s important to either avoid the sun after usage or apply this oil at night.
PEPPERMINT ESSENTIAL OIL
The peppermint plant grows throughout Europe and North America and is a natural cross between water mint and spearmint. Due to its pain-relieving, spasmolytic, and anti-inflammatory properties, members of the mint family have been widely used in traditional medicine to treat digestive disorders and problems in the nervous system. It has also been used as a hair loss treatment for centuries. In a 2014 study, scientists found that peppermint oil showed prominent effects on hair growth — increased dermal thickness, number of follicles, and follicle depth — compared to other common topical medications for hair loss.
It is important to note that peppermint oil should be diluted in a carrier oil or hair product. Otherwise, it can cause skin irritation and systemic toxicity. Peppermint oil is also more intense and concentrated than most essential oils, so it is never advised for usage on small children, during pregnancy, or while breastfeeding.
Jojoba oil is a carrier oil extracted from the seeds of the jojoba plant, which grows in the dry regions of Northern Mexico and Southwestern United States. It has been used for thousands of years in dermatology to heal wounds, fight skin infections, and slow skin aging. Jojoba oil also acts as an antioxidant against free radicals that can damage skin cells, contribute to aging, and cause cancer.
Jojoba oil can be used on its own or mixed with other essential oils and/or hair products — it’s a good option for anyone looking to use carrier oils in their hair care regime as it is easily absorbed and light in viscosity. Heating the oil prior to usage will make it easier to apply.
Coconut oil is also a carrier oil that can be used on its own or mixed with other essential oils. Extracted from the kernel of mature coconuts, coconut oil is known for its numerous health benefits, such as preventing protein loss in hair that may result from grooming routines and ultraviolet exposure. There has also been scientific research demonstrating that coconut oil has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant effects. Furthermore, in a 2015 study, coconut oil was the only oil found to reduce protein loss for both undamaged and damaged hair.
Similar to jojoba oil, it is helpful to heat coconut oil prior to application. Remember to avoid the scalp when applying coconut oil, since it may clog pores and cause irritation. And although coconut oil seems universally beneficial, its viscosity won’t work for everyone’s hair types, so it can be helpful to do a patch test.
Essential oils can help stimulate hair growth by reducing inflammation and increasing blood flow to the scalp; however, due to their high concentration, remember to apply in moderation and to always mix them with a carrier oil or in another hair product before applying it to your hair. Keep in mind that different hair types will have varying responses to different oils.
Remember to also test the diluted essential oil on a small patch of hair, since some people may experience allergic reactions such as itching, swelling and skin irritation. If you experience any difficulties with breathing, dizziness or altered states of consciousness, you should seek immediate medical attention.