A few years ago, I wrote an article as a guest blogger, entitled: “How I Grew My Natural Hair to Mid-Back Length and used Minimal Products”
In this article, I shared some of the rudimentary, natural ingredients and recipes that I used in the first (2) years of my natural hair journey, which resulted in long tresses way down the middle of my back.
Since this article, I have done a second big chop, just for the fun of it, and 3 years later, I am again, coasting at mid-back length. Of course, this has won me the recurring question of: “What do you use to grow your hair?” – a difficult and complex question, if any was asked because the answer is multi-layered.
While I must credit genetics and my hair living in its purpose- to grow – for my hair growth, I also credit my kitchen mixologist tendencies with supporting the growth and retention of my hair. In this article, I will share two (2) ingredients that are rooted in Caribbean hair-care history, that I have incorporated into my haircare regimen.
In The Beginning:
Before we delve into some of my personal favourite natural hair loves that hail from the Caribbean region, let’s talk about the WHY. Why was I even inclined towards trying natural ingredients in my hair? Why do I still use them in the face of a multi-billion dollar industry of black and natural hair products?
At 27, after the passing of my maternal grandmother, I have come to understand that my love for natural ingredients and mixing is the gift of legacy and a byproduct of my love of history. I’ve always had an affinity for understanding how past generations did things and I’ve always desired to preserve the best of their practices.
Growing up, I would ask my grandmother about herbs, foods, fruits and vegetables and I had a keen interest in learning about how the people in her generation used them, even outside of haircare. During my adolescence and early adulthood I learnt a lot of her practices, such as how she made coconut oil, pone, cassava and starch cake and how she planted. I had a keen interest in her stories and remedies; in her generation’s use of the unprocessed.
I am not as close to my paternal grandmother, but a similar thread runs through our relationship. In fact, my sister and I jokingly say that my paternal side has generations of traditional “healers”. My great-grandfather, Papa Radoor, was a community healer, and he used natural mixtures of oils, plants, herbs and soft-candle to “rub” people with inflammation and costochondritis- a condition that is colloquially called “Bless”. In our local tongue – Saint Lucian french creole, this rubbing is called “pansé”.
Perhaps, because of his service to the community in that regard, my paternal grandmother has always recorded a keen interest in learning about different herbs and traditional medicine. She has books upon books about these; her every-day conversations are littered with suggestions of natural remedies, and my aunt, her daughter, has taken up the mantle. My father likes to think himself knowledgeable too. Since his discovery of the wonders of WhatsApp communication, and especially since my relocation to Trinidad, almost every day I am AWOKEN by a message about some natural healthcare remedy.
Perhaps, I am the healer of my generation of women, and perhaps, the legacy bequeathed to me has been honed to a specialization- that of using traditional remedies, and offerings from the soil, to heal black women’s self-esteem because for us as a community, our hair, our beauty, and our ideas about them contribute heavily to our self-esteem.
So… Two ingredients.
Castor Oil has overtaken the Natural Hair Industry because of its purported ability to revive degenerated follicles and stimulate hair growth and thickness.
While I do not subscribe to the notion that Castor oil can increase hair’s thickness, I do think it can support with healthy hair growth and encourage length retention.
What we typically refer to when we speak of hair’s “thickness” is the density of one’s hair. Density is measured by ascertaining how many strands someone has per square centimetre, and one’s density can be low, average/medium or high. Density is a matter of genetics, and one cannot increase his/her number of strands per square centimetre through any process or ingredient.
That being stated, castor oil has many beneficial properties that support hair growth and length retention.
According to researchers, castor oil contains riconoleic acid which stimulates the scalp, and thus, increases blood circulation in the area to which it is applied. This stimulation is multiplied if you pair your application with a short massage. Blood contains nutrients, and so with its increased circulation to any area, the area is well fed. In the case of hair, these additional nutriients encourage hair growth.
Riconoleic acid is also said to have antibacterial, antifungal and and anti-inflammatory properties, thus it is great for your scalp health. Riconoleic acid is also said to balance your scalp pH, which creates the optimal environment for hairgrowth.
The claim that castor oil, as we know it in the Caribbean, has the ability to revive deceased follicles may be linked to the fact that the antioxidants in castor oil support the development of strengthened hair roots, which inadvertently results in reduced hair loss. Apart from strengthened hair roots, these antioxidants which support keratin levels in the hair shaft also contribute to a smoother, stronger hair cuticle.
While information is limited on the beginning of Castor Oil’s use for haircare practices in the Caribbean, it has been noted that the castor plant’s origin in the Caribbean parallels the activity of the slave trade. According to accounts, castor oil use was recorded in the Caribbean in as early as 1696. Some of the early uses of Castor Oil in the region were medicinal – “ An example includes curing colds and fever on Andros Island, Bahamas ( Stanley, 1923) and the Virgin Islands (Oakes and morris, 1958). The oil is also recorded as being used in the Caribbean region as a poultice and in ointments. (Oakes and Morris, 1958).
Castor oil was also used extensively as a purge in the Caribbean region, with recordings of this being done in Jamaica as early as 1953, and even earlier on Andros Island in the Bahamas. The oil has also been used to : “ promote childbirth and stimulate milk production” with records of this being done in the Caribbean in as early as 1945. (Roig y Mesa, 1945).
These accounts all emphasise how long castor oil has been used in the region. While there were no documented historical accounts of its use in hair care and beauty in the Caribbean region, my grandmother, Cecile Doris Laurent, born in 1927, often regaled me with stories of her use of a mixture of “lwil pa makwisti” (St.Lucian French Creole for castor oil), “yellow vaseline” and red lavender oil to soften her natural hair as a child. In fact, I distinctly remember her stating that they would buy 5 cents worth of yellow vaseline and 5 cents worth of white vaseline and the mixture would be made. This mixture would be applied after their hair was washed and allowed to air dry ( most likely in its loose state). Their hair would then be twisted in hairpin twists. This combination of this potent mixture and hairpin twists were thought to encourage hair thickness and softness, and promote its growth.
Castor oil has made a reappearance into haircare regimens of afro-descendant men and women across the globe and I am here for it! The Caribbean brand of castor oil specifically has made a dent in the haircare world in this generation as it is different to castor oil from other regions. Caribbean castor oil, often called “Black castor oil”, possesses an “ash” that darkens the liquid. This ash is as a result of the unique step of roasting the seeds before they are pounded into a powder/paste, and then boilt. This ash is said to increase the pH of the oil, making it more alkaline to its clear counterpart that is produced outside of the Caribbean. This alkalinity is said to allow for opening of the hair cuticle, thus allowing for greater absorption of products and nutrients. The ash is also said to aid in the management of scalp conditions such as dandruff.
Names such as “cold pressed” have been attached to the castor oil derived from other regions, as the extraction process utilises pressure to extract the oil from the castor seed, as opposed to heat.
Fun Fact: Jamaica has done a marvelous job of branding the product as a national one, but the history and documentation suggest that the castor plant , and consequently, black castor oil, may have been in use in Haiti at least 100 years before it made its debut in Jamaica.
Either way, the Caribbean is home to this wonderful product, and thus, we have made a wonderful contribution to beauty and haircare on the world stage.
Aloe Vera + Cactus
Cactus, and its cousin, Aloe Vera have also had a long history of use in the Caribbean region. A cactus variety, often called “Ratchet” in the islands, has popularly been used in the Rastafarian community as a natural shampoo for decades. Again, unfortunately, it was difficult to access historic recordings of the use of this plant in beauty and haircare regimens in the region. Luckily for the Caribbean’s history, the use of the prickly pear cactus/ “ratchet” was not so long ago that information about it has died with the generations that have passed on.
In fact, persons as young as mid-thirties to forties, cite its consistent use in their wash routine as children. Trinidadians who recall their use of the ratchet plant often give an account of it being grated to bring out its saponifying properties. It would then be applied to the hair, where its mucilaginous nature resembled a lather. In St.Lucia, on the other hand, I have witnessed a slightly different process, where the ratchet plant is pounded with a sharp stone, made to lather, and then applied to the hair ( or dreadlocks.) Both of these processes often left pesky residue interwoven into the coils of natural textures. Its removal was tiresome, and sometimes painful, as a small-toothed comb was used to comb out the fine bits on loose natural hair. Dreadlocks were shaken, once dry, to dislodge the bigger pieces of residue.
While our application methods cannot be acclaimed as revolutionary hair techniques, the Rastafarians, and subsequently, natural-haired persons in the Caribbean community were on to something when they integrated the ratchet plant into haircare. The ratchet plant, like the aloe vera plant, contains great nutrients that encourage hair care. Much like the aloe vera plant, the prickly pear cactus’ slippery gel, often referred to as “penka gel” hydrates the hair. The plant is also said to be rich in Vitamin E and has anti-fungal and microbial properties. This makes it a great salve for a problematic scalp and may be the reason it was historically used as a cleanser.
In this day, we no longer grate or pound the ratchet. The leaf can be sliced into like you would an aloe leaf, and the gel can be scooped out, blended and strained to ensure that there is no residue. The plant grows wild in many parts of the world, so, next time you come across the ratchet, don’t think twice about using it for your hair! … Many people also use it to make an oil!
These are just two (2) ingredients that have strong roots in the Caribbean’s beauty and haircare history, and there are many more, such as coconut oil, avocados and eggs. It is convenient, and fun to try store-bought products, but don’t think for a moment that you MUST engage in consumerism in order to maintain a healthy head of hair!
What are some hair ingredients your ancestors used that you have incorporated into your modern hair routine?
Susan A. McClure. (1982). Parallel Usage of Medicinal Plants by Africans and Their Caribbean Descendants. Economic Botany, 36(3), 291-301. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4254400