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

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My main concern that I had with palm oil is the vast deforestation of rainforests. This destroys the homes many animals like, the orangutans.

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.