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Hair Grease: The Black Girl’s Friend, Then “Enemy,” Now Friend Again?

Who remembers those days of sitting in between our mothers’ legs as she styled our hair? Our scalps were tender and our necks grew sore as we were constantly reminded to “keep our heads down,” but in the end we always slayed those hairstyles with our colorful bows and oh-so-shiny foreheads (thanks to hair grease).

Those days are long gone. We’ve traded those bows for scrunchies and can gently detangle at our own pace. But for grease, that will always be a staple within Black haircare. At least, it used to be.

Hair grease has played a significant role within Black hair care throughout history, but in recent years, as the second Natural Hair Movement emerged, it’s garnered disdain from many. That leaves the question: is hair grease here to stay, or has it run its course?

The Origins of Hair Grease in the Black Community

After African slaves were forcibly moved from their homeland and into the Americas, they were stripped of their freedoms in performing their daily routine. One of which included maintaining proper hair care. Slaves were left with limited options after once having access to luxurious herbs and oils to nourish their hair.

To keep their hair and scalp as moisturized and protected as possible, slaves used various agents, including bacon grease, butter, and petroleum jelly. Over time, grease gradually evolved into its own haircare category, with Annie Turnbo Malone’s widely acclaimed modern-day version of hair grease, “Wonderful Hair Grower,” catalyzing the production of hair grease products by countless Black haircare brands. 

The Natural Hair Movement

From Jheri curls to box braids and finger waves, Black women have slayed many stylish hair trends throughout the decades. Unfortunately, due to the racist and unrealistic ideals of European beauty standards projected onto Black women, straight hair was often seen as beautiful and superior.

So much so, that Black women often straightened their hair or used chemical relaxers to assimilate to this standard. That is until many Black women decided to reject these harsh standards and embrace their natural hair in the late 2000s. 

Worldwide, Black women began to ditch their hot combs and relaxers and started to embrace their curls and coils. For some, this decision came about to improve the health of their hair, while others made it a mission to love the hair that society routinely degraded and reduce the stigma surrounding natural hair. The internet became the hub for Black women to find support from other curly girls and receive information on how to care for their hair. 

As the Natural Hair Movement progressed, many naturalistas desired to use hair products that contained only natural ingredients. Shea butter, Jamaican black castor oil, coconut oil, and other natural products were increasingly sought after. 

Soon after, hair grease surprisingly made its way into the negative spotlight. Common hair grease ingredients such as petrolatum and mineral oil soon garnered criticism because of its presumed tendencies to block moisture from penetrating the strands and clogging pores on the scalp, which many soon attributed to causing product buildup and ultimately stunting hair growth. This influx of info made its rounds throughout the natural hair community, and many quickly eliminated it out of their hair product stash.

In recent years, however, many Black women have gotten tired of paying for expensive natural hair products or have not seen any improvements with the acclaimed natural ingredients. As a result, many have gone back to including grease in their hair regimen, remembering how healthy and long their hair was as a child, and seeing improved results ever since using it again.

So, is hair grease bad then?

To answer the burning question in one word, no. Hair grease is not bad. The recent buzz about hair grease being bad for the hair can be mostly attributed to the perception that the ingredients are not safe for the hair, or that the product virtually doesn’t make a difference.

To break down the very essence of hair grease, let’s start with its ingredients. Mineral oil and petrolatum are the two most common ingredients found in hair grease. These ingredients are byproducts of the crude oil refining process and have been used in countless topical treatments to treat concerns like cuts, burns, diaper rashes, and more for centuries.

Many fear that these ingredients are contaminated with the cancer-causing chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). But for the mineral oil and petrolatum that is found in cosmetics and personal care products, these ingredients have undergone a strict and thorough refining process, making sure to meet safety standards.

How do I properly use it?

Before you go and slap a big glob of grease on your hair, this particular hair product isn’t exactly like your favorite leave-in-conditioner (based on rather greasy past experiences, please, just don’t try it). To get the best results from hair grease, you’ll want to apply it on either damp or moisturized hair, and the reason for this method lies in the structure of hair grease ingredients.

Mineral oil and petrolatum are actually not the moisturizing agents that they so often are believed to be. Instead, they are occlusives, or what you may commonly hear in the natural hair community, sealants. The molecules in these ingredients are very big, so big that they can’t penetrate the hair shaft. Rather, they serve as a barrier to trap all water and moisture inside and ensure that no harmful particles enter.

These ingredients also provide great source of lubrication to prevent breakage and those pesky single-strand knots.

By applying grease to damp or moisturized hair, your strands will remain sealed for days on end and be slow to experience dryness or breakage. And as an added bonus, the prolonged added moisture and prevention of breakage gradually improves the hair’s health and allows the strands to retain length.

But wait! How do I wash this out?

Since hair grease molecules are large and virtually sit atop the strand’s surface, neither moisturizing shampoos nor co-washes are strong enough to break down the grease. Instead, clarifying or sulfate-based shampoos are essential when using grease products.

The chemical makeup of these specific shampoos thoroughly cleanse the scalp and hair and prevent product buildup. Shea Moisture’s Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen & Restore Shampoo and ORS’ Olive Oil Creamy Aloe Shampoo are some effective clarifying shampoos.

With this info on hair grease, remember that everybody’s hair is different. Some curly girls may miraculously be able to get away with using grease alone to moisturize their hair, while others may dislike the feeling that it gives to their hair. Both of these outcomes are perfectly fine.

It is important to proceed with practices that are best for you and not to change something at the accord of others.

Written by Faith Udokang

Faith is a staff writer at Foxywears.

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