For Discussion: Do Butters and Oils "Suffocate" Our Hair?

Article also on Black Girl with Long Hair!

A few weeks ago, I had the absolute amazing opportunity to participate as a panelist in the Ouidad #FRIZZ101 hangout. I got some great information on managing frizz in dry climates, deep conditioning, and more. If you're interested in the whole hour, go right ahead and watch. But if you want to hear Ouidad say something that *might* make you believe your entire natural hair journey has been a lie (of course I'm being dramatic), fast forward to 34:09 when Renee of In Her Shoes mentions using oils to seal in moisture and add shine.

Ouidad cuts in and says, "Oil does not seal in moisture."
WHAT?! What do you mean, oil doesn't seal in moisture? Ouidad goes on to explain:

"Oil coats the hair and repeals natural moisture [from the environment]. It causes dehydration, dullness, and frizziness. Our hair is like us, it needs to breathe. If we suffocate it [with oils], it dries out."

Ouidad did go on to mention that there are water soluble oils, as well as oils like coconut that are very beneficial for natural hair -- but that they should not be applied directly to the hair. They should be included as ingredients in products that you feed your hair. Does that mean everything we've learned about natural oils as sealants is a lie? Do oils seal the hair or suffocate it? For further clarification, I reached out to Jennifer Rose (@jenniferrosenyc on Instagram) of Bellissimo Hair Spa in NYC. She had this to say on the matter:

"Applying a light oil to hair after styling or before bed for daily moisture is great. But it is the IDEA of 'sealing' that I have an issue with. You SHOULD have to apply your oil or spray-on moisturizer daily, that means it is truly being absorbed. If you put oil in your hair Sunday and it is still there Wednesday, your hair is lubricated, NOT moisturized. Oil does not "seal" moisture into the hair. If you have to L.O.C., that means your L is a crap product."

Apparently, these two textured hair professionals are on the same page. Although some may discredit Ouidad because her client base is not exclusively Black women, Rose's specialty is caring for, maintaining, and growing natural hair. Despite their differences in clientele, they are both leaning toward the same idea: chill on the overzealous use of oils and butters. You aren't doing your hair any favors.

So are we suffocating, sealing, smothering, or spot-on? 

I find their choice of words interesting. Suffocating. Lubricating. Suffocating means to literally kill by preventing the access of air. Lubricating is the action of applying an oily or greasy substance to diminish friction. Sealing, of course involves creating an inpenetrible barrier that allows nothing to escape, but also nothing to enter. Semantics aside, oils and butters have always been touted to help lock moisture within the hair, helping it remain hydrated longer. But by that same token, oils and butters (with the exception of coconut oil) are never touted as moisturizers by any blogger or vlogger worth their weight in conditioner. Because by that same function of sealing moisture in, moisture is also kept out -- and to an extent, repelled from the hair. So technically speaking, hair can be both sealed and suffocated (while being lubricated, haha) with oils and butters.

My opinion on the matter? I think it boils down to three main points:
  • How much butter/oil are you using?
  • How frequently are you using it?
  • How are you actually moisturizing your hair?
While I can't speak to what works for others, I can definitely share what works for me. Truthfully, I've never been a huge fan of sealing. Partially because I'm super heavy-handed with product and would turn my hair into one big greasy curl, and partially because I prefer to focus on incorporating moisture into my hair through the right product combinations. For me, there is some truth to what Jennifer Rose said in terms of "crap products", and what Ouidad emphasized in terms of oils and butters being ingredients in the products used to nourish the hair. But first, let's address the elephant in the room first: there are some crap products out there. Some products, by ingredient choice or formulation (or by manufacturers taking shortcuts to save money), are absolute crap. No name-dropping here, but we can all probably name at least 3 products that are junk in a bottle. On the other hand, even though a product may not be crap in and of itself, it may indeed be crap for my hair...or make my hair feel like crap. Even though I'm a product junkie with no recovery in sight, I refuse to hold on to products that don't work for my hair. There is absolutely no point in wasting my time (or money) on a product that doesn't work well to meet my hair's needs. Supporting Ouidad's point about oils included in products, for the bulk of my hair, hydration, nourishment, oils, and everything else under the sun comes from my leave-in and moisturizer.

There are two exceptions to this of course: my scalp and my ends. Because I have psoriasis, my scalp can get itchy and dry at the drop of a hat. To help quell this issue, I lightly apply oil to my scalp (mixed with a little peppermint or rosemary essential oil) and massage it in for a few minutes. The second exception is for my ends. They tend to dry out easily (more than likely because I never protectively style and wear wash and go's 96.8% of the time), so I have to be diligent about keeping them moisturized. Every other day, I apply water-based moisture (via spray, lotion, or Q-Redew) first, then follow up with a ceramide-rich oil or butter blend lightly applied and worked into the ends. But again, this works well for me. Every glorious head of hair is different, and has different needs.

So in the end, what say you, naturalistas? Did we all jump on the butter bandwagon too quickly, or are we just doing what's right for our hair? Does this information convince you to not use oils or butters at all (except for in products), in moderation, or will you continue your regimen as usual?

Weigh in!