I am a food­ie. I love try­ing out unfa­mil­iar cuisines and fre­quent­ing dif­fer­ent restau­rants. One obser­va­tion I have made in in my culi­nary excur­sions is the com­mon approach to food in parts of the world that, on the sur­face, appear quite dif­fer­ent. It’s not uncom­mon to find plat­ed dish­es in some parts of the Mid­dle east, India, West Africa, Ethiopia and the Caribbean Islands that are meant to be eat­en with the hands rather than uten­sils. These aren’t the only com­mon­al­i­ties I’ve observed between the East and the Dias­po­ra. The approach to hair care is a prime exam­ple of how beau­ty prac­tices around the world may share more sim­i­lar­i­ties than one might think.

African and Indi­an Hair Care Sim­i­lar­i­ties

First, a bit of a clar­i­fi­ca­tion. We all know that Africa is a con­ti­nent, which means that the hair care prac­tices to which I am refer­ring may vary from coun­try to coun­try and from region to region. My descrip­tion, there­fore, may not be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of ALL of the coun­tries in Africa. If I’ve missed some­thing (which, no doubt I will) please chime in and share in the com­ments sec­tions. Like­wise, when I refer to Indi­an hair care, I’m refer­ring to India in South Asia as opposed to Native Amer­i­can Indi­an hair care prac­tices and lim­it­ing my review to Ayurvedic hair care, which may not be prac­ticed by all Indi­ans.


Over the last decade, the use of oils in prod­ucts have become a huge focus in mar­ket­ing main­stream hair care. Every­thing from argan oil to macadamia nut oil has been added to pricey hair prod­ucts. Oils have long been cen­tral to hair care in much of Africa and South Asia long before they became the rage in the West. Many women in African coun­tries have tight­ly coiled and curly hair mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for the length of one’s hair to retain the mois­ture from the sebum oil the scalp nat­u­ral­ly pro­duces. Many of us are famil­iar with the appli­ca­tion of olive oil and shea but­ter to hair, but unre­fined red palm oil, com­mon­ly used in West Africa, isn’t fre­quent­ly asso­ci­at­ed with hair care in the West. Red palm oil is an oil often used in the cook­ing of West African cui­sine. Palm oil, which derives its name from the fruit of the palm tree, is rich in nutri­ents such as vit­a­min A and E.  It has even been said to pos­sess heal­ing prop­er­ties both for the skin and hair. Much like shea but­terred palm oil is dense enough to per­me­ate course hair. The added advan­tage to red palm oil is that if you try it and find that it doesn’t work for your hair, you can use it to make a deli­cious pot of jollof rice!

Ayurvedic hair care has become syn­ony­mous with Indi­an hair care and for good rea­son. While hair tex­tures most com­mon across African coun­tries might be dis­tinct from those hair tex­tures com­mon in India, the sim­pli­fied, nature-based reg­i­men bears strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. Many of the images of South Asian women fea­tured on their beau­ty prod­ucts appear to indi­cate that all women in that part of the world have bone straight, thick hair but there is quite a diver­si­ty among hair types. Some women have thick, curly hair, while oth­er women have very fine hair. There­fore, the prod­ucts and prac­tices of Ayurvedic hair care isn’t guid­ed by a one size fits all phi­los­o­phy.

One beau­ty stan­dard val­ued (at least from the stand­point of hair care mar­ket­ing in India) is shiny, glossy hair. The prac­tice sim­i­lar to what many in the nat­ur­al com­mu­ni­ty call pre-sham­poo­ing (or pre-poo­ing) is one way that women in India pre­pare their hair for wash­ing. I’ve dis­cussed some of the ben­e­fits of the oils used in this arti­cle, but I’d like to reit­er­ate the ben­e­fits of my favorite oils, amla oil and Nyle Herbal oil (coconut oil infused with herbs like amla, hen­na, hibis­cus). These oils can lim­it the strip­ping of one’s hair that occurs dur­ing rou­tine wash­ing, while facil­i­tat­ing the process of detan­gling pri­or to wash­ing.

An Afro-Indi­an Reg­i­men

To be clear, the pur­pose of an Afro-Indi­an reg­i­men is not to dis­miss hair care prod­ucts or prac­tices not iden­ti­fied above. Rather, it pro­vides a way of sim­pli­fy­ing one’s reg­i­men by nar­row­ing the options from which one might choose. This can be par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful for those of you who suf­fer from prod­uct junky­ism or who want to explore the ben­e­fits of nat­ur­al oils on your hair. Iden­ti­fy­ing a few oils and but­ters that work (or don’t work) can make your hair care rou­tine eas­i­er because you’ll know which prod­ucts to invest in and which to keep off your shop­ping list.

Do you have any expe­ri­ence with some of hair care prac­tices in African coun­tries or India? What are your expe­ri­ences and what prod­ucts did you find to be most effec­tive?  


Island girl raised in the most roy­al of NYC’s bor­oughs. Proud nerd, social sci­en­tist, edu­ca­tor and recov­er­ing awk­ward black girl. When not lis­ten­ing to NPR, try­ing to grow spir­i­tu­al­ly, or detan­gling my fro, I’m search­ing for the best shrimp and grits in the Queen City.

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36 Comments on "What Naturals Can Learn From African and East Indian Hair Practices"

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Lakitha Goss

I love Vati­ka oils.


Qhemet prod­ucts con­tain Indi­an and African oils and extracts.


As an aside: I thought plan­tains when they were black WAS what you want­ed. We let ours turn black (when their sug­ars are at their high­est), peel them, slice them, and the fry them in coconut oil until they are gold­en brown and deli­cious! ~Don’t throw your plan­tains away when they get black!! =)


Sor­ry I meant real­ly real­ly ripe, when the skin is extreme­ly thin and the fruit is so soft its almost liq­uid and you don’t fan­cy mak­ing plan­tain wine.….…


Not many peo­ple do that

Leslye Williams

Where do you get your prod­ucts? How do you incor­po­rate them? Sounds inter­est­ing I’d like to try!


i get my shea but­ter from a soap store —, the dried amla is from, and most of my oth­er oils and herbs i get from i make every­thing from cus­tards to spritzes to tea rins­es with the herbs, aloe vera & acv! youtube has some great videos to get you start­ed and you can tweak the recipes to work for you! be care­ful though! it easy to get addict­ed to kitchen chem­istry! LOL~


I use it for jollof


My friend is Niger­ian and she uses it on jollof rice.


shea but­ter, dried amla, dried shikakai, marsh­mal­low root, hen­na pow­der, rose pow­der, neem oil & even emu oil have all become part of my reg­u­lar hair reg­i­men and my hair has begun to thrive in ways i nev­er imag­ined! just when i thought i was get­ting bored with my jour­ney or reach­ing a hair plateau these new dis­cov­er­ies have offered an entire­ly new area of explo­ration for my nat­ur­al hair!


Many peo­ple use bananas for con­di­tion­ing the hair.Well I have found plan­tains work just as well.And its a real­ly good way of using up those real­ly ripe plan­tains that have turned black and soft which might get thrown out.


I have incor­po­rat­ed Shea but­ter (in most of my dai­ly beau­ty reg­i­men, skin and hair) along with ayurvedic prod­ucts such as hen­na and amla and loved the results. Dubar Vati­ka brand enriched coconut oil can be found at Indian/Middle East­ern stores and is inex­pen­sive.

Lakitha Goss

The Vati­ka Olive Oil , Coconut Oil, Amla OIL, AND Almond Oils are to die for. I have relaxed hair.


I use all of these and love them.

Janice Bradley

Coarse hair.….which refers to tex­ture; not course hair which can mean a path from one place to anoth­er or an edu­ca­tion­al class.


It’s true that red palm oil is used for cook­ing, but I don’t know any­one who uses it to make jollof rice. Sounds a bit unhealthy, but it makes a great addi­tive to soup (egusi, okra, etc.) in small amounts. Aside, from that… I’ve always thought it would be a good addi­tion to hair care if there weren’t so many issues with defor­esta­tion and unsafe pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers. Espe­cial­ly, for peo­ple who are aller­gic to tree nuts and can’t use palm ker­nel oil; and coconut oil doesn’t work for them. Shame to… well on to the next oil or but­ter.


Palm trees are peren­ni­als, that means you can har­vest the fruits with­out caus­ing harm to the tree.


All those talk­ing about defor­esta­tion and con­ser­va­tion, Please note that there is no need to cut down palm trees to har­vest the nuts. You climb the tree, cut down the bunch and and leave. (I don’t see any­one com­plain­ing about using coconuts, which are a close rela­tion of tbe palm nuts) Also nobody uses palm oil for the hair..we use the palm ker­nel oil. Palm oil comes from the flesh, palm ker­nel oil comes from the hard nut, 2 dif­fer­ent oils but same source


Hi, we use it on our hair and skin in Ango­la.


The issue is not cut­ting down palm trees. It’s defor­esta­tion of oth­er trees for the pur­pose of build­ing trop­i­cal plan­ta­tions (same w/ bananas real­ly). It’s hap­pen­ing more in South Amer­i­ca and SE Asia than Africa though


Lol yes! I don’t think the smell is worth it though…especially after a few hours


I real­ly do agree with some of the com­ments made by the oth­er ladies. I real­ly don’t think that we should encour­age fur­ther use of palm oil because of the envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion the extrac­tion has on our ecosys­tem and the effects it’s caus­ing oth­er species. We should all care for our hair the best way pos­si­ble but my per­son­al opin­ion is that it shouldn’t be at the expense of oth­er peo­ple, species or the envi­ron­ment. Just my two cents, love the oth­er tips though!


I couldn’t imag­ine using that on my hair. Its just goes per­fect­ly with food and food only.

Lakitha Goss

What you eat can be used on the hair and skin.


In Ethiopia we just put but­ter (like cook­ing but­ter) in our hair in the way you would a deep con­di­tion­er. It’s cheap, nat­ur­al, and works won­ders on your hair! I swear, it makes it feel sooo soft. The only prob­lem is the smell.…..


True that. I will nev­er use prod­ucts with palm oil due to the defor­esta­tion and the impact on the species that live there.


While I’ve cut down on incor­po­rat­ing palm oil in my life (its prob­lem­at­ic nature has already been men­tioned) for food and hair, I LOVED the anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive pre­sent­ed in this arti­cle.


I find that Ayurvedic prac­tices (oils and herbs) have worked well for me in terms of hair and health.

Very inter­est­ing. I don’t kno any­one who put red palm in their hair, and I had friends and fam­i­ly from all walks of life. Palm ker­nel oil, yes, my grand­mom did and now I do too. But the two are quite dif­fer­ent. Also, I’ve seen peo­ple use coconut oil in their hair. Last­ly, we have shea but­ter, donut grease as we call it, but we gen­er­al­ly don’t use it in our hair. We most­ly use it as a salve and even use it to help break fevers. But then again I can’t speak for all Afr­cans or Liberi­ans. These could… Read more »

Ah — a fel­low Liber­ian. Love it. I don’t know any­one that would put red palm oil in their hair. I would only cook with it & def­i­nite­ly not make Jollof rice. I don’t know either why we call shea but­ter donut grease. I’ll have to ask my mom the next time I speak to her.


I thought I was the only Liber­ian lurk­ing this site! lol. Appar­ent­ly, the Nige­ri­ans and Gha­ni­ans use ‘ray oil’ to make jollof rice. I was like “for true”? I had to google their recipe to make sure the author had it right, and appar­ent­ly she does. No won­der why our jollof rice, which is def­i­nite­ly my favorite, tastes so dif­fer­ent from the oth­er coun­tries’. Reply to this thread and let me know when you find out.


@Jojo: Wow, shea used to break fevers? How is it done? Learn some­thing new every­day. Also, is there a par­tic­u­lar rea­son why shea but­ter is also called donut grease where you live?


And by the way, the shea but­ter fever thing is by no way an endorse­ment. Just to be clear to the read­ing pub­lic.


Yes. I remem­ber at least one occa­sion of being rubbed down with shea but­ter and cov­ered with a blan­ket so I could sweat out the fever.. I’m not sure if every­one does that but my par­ents did. Also I’m not sure why it’s called donut grease quite hon­est­ly. Maybe it looks sim­i­lar to the lard we use to fry donuts? I don’t know girl :)

Manestream Beauty

I would only use Red Palm Oil (from the palm nut fruit) for cook­ing cer­tain Niger­ian dish­es, but I don’t think I would use it in my hair, because it would leave red stains. Eth­i­cal­ly sourced Palm Ker­nel Oil (from the palm nut ker­nel) on the oth­er hand, might be worth a try.


I don’t think I could ever sup­port the palm oil indus­try because of what’s hap­pen­ing, but I will con­sid­er the oth­ers.