Head Case By Katherine Stewart


by Katherine Stewart

You never forget your first scalp treatment. Mine took place on a wintry, East Coast day. Months in heated apartments had left me with an itchy head and bone-dry hair. So when I spotted ‘Warm Oil Scalp Therapy’ on the menu of a local spa, I decided to investigate. The therapist, an aging counter-cultural type, warned me the treatment was not as simple as it sounded. “Sometimes people have visions,” she said. She was right. As she massaged the warm oil into my scalp, I submerged into scenes from my childhood, feeling innocent and protected. An hour later, I emerged from the treatment relaxed and refreshed. And all week, I got complements on my shiny, bouncy hair.

Head CaseHead Case

Applying oil to the scalp has been recognized as a powerful ritual throughout history. Moses’s brother Aaron, of Old Testament fame, was doused with oil, signifying his induction into the priesthood. Back then, being anointed was a privilege reserved for the most highly regarded members of society. Practiced by early Christians as well as second-millennium Syrians, the Cypriots, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians, the ritual evolved into an event marking life’s milestones, including marriages and important business transactions. Even women renouncing prostitution were anointed with oil, signifying purification.

Anointing the scalp was also practiced in India and the Far East. It was an important component of Ayurvedic medicine, which advocates scalp massage as a tool for preventing disease and healing the body. Sesame, mustard, and almond oils were thought to warm the body, stimulating energy and increasing circulation. Oil infused with brahmi, a botanical ingredient derived from the gotu kola leaf, encouraged restful sleep.

A popular Ayurvedic treatment is shirodhara, in which oil is poured slowly and gently across the forehead, releasing stress and fatigue from the nervous system. At The Raj in Fairfield, Iowa, shirodhara is performed following an abhyanga, or warm oil massage, of the entire body and scalp. The shirodhara treatment lasts from twenty to thirty minutes, and the oils and herbal infusions used are determined by each guest’s body type and individual health needs.

“The head governs mental activity, and a busy mind is not conducive to restful sleep,” says Mark Toomey, PhD, director of Maharishi Ayurveda at The Raj. “Head and scalp procedures are excellent for controlling the ‘vata dosha’ (an Ayurvedic category of body type and energy characterized by restlessness) that is responsible for excess thinking”

One doesn’t have to go to the spa to benefit from a scalp massage. Toomey points out that massaging one’s own head with the fingertips is an effective strategy for turning around a sluggishness mood. “Even a five minute self-massage of the scalp can settle the mind and improve your state of being” he says. “But it should be done slowly and gently, as the head is considered a delicate area”

Scalp treatments calm the emotions by bringing one’s thoughts into the moment. They speak to our need for balance and ceremony, for touch that is intimate yet respects physical boundaries. “Sometimes clients just aren’t in the mood to have their bodies touched” says Elaine Calenda, academic dean at the Boulder College of Massage Therapy. “Maybe they just don’t feel like disrobing in front of a stranger. Perhaps they are recovering from illness or injury. During those times, scalp therapy is very beneficial.”

The head is a bit like the feet: packed with nerve-endings, a portal to the rest of the body. “Massaging the skull has a lot of benefits that people wouldn’t ordinarily think of” says Calenda. “It can ease restrictions of nerve passages and help to regulate intracranial fluid. It also does an amazing job of relaxing the jaw; jaw tension is the cause of a lot of headaches. Scalp massages also relieve sinus congestion and relax the eye muscles because the optic nerve begins in the back of the head. So by relaxing and bringing nutritive blood flow to the scalp, you’re enhancing all of the five sense organs; the skin, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.”

Because hair is a potent symbol of sexuality and virility, vanity gives scalp treatments a boost. At the Spa at The Four Seasons Los Angeles, the Scalp Treatment is recommended as an add-on therapy for guests whose hair seems dry or lifeless. The treatment begins with a light dry massage of the scalp. Next, hair and scalp oil is applied section by section. The formulation contains sage and tea tree oils, which fight dandruff and soothe and tone the scalp, as well as nourishing avocado, golden jojoba, and safflower oils, which are high in vitamins, minerals, and omega fatty acids.

Not all scalp conditions can be solved at the spa, however. Dermatologists and trichologists (specialists in the study of the hair and scalp) are in the best position to diagnose chronic or persistent disorders, and to counter misinformation. For instance, while oil-based scalp treatments are widely thought to combat dandruff, they won’t necessarily do the trick.

“It is commonly assumed that dandruff is ‘dry scalp’ and it’s not,” says Philip Kingsley, whose product line and books, including The Hair Bible: A Complete Guide to Health and Care (Aurum Press, 2003) have made him one of the most prominent trichologists in the world. “Dandruff flakes are usually oily, so applying oil is only going to make the flakes even oilier. Shampooing the hair and scalp daily is good for the scalp, contrary to the thought that shampooing will make a ‘dry scalp’ drier.” He continues, “Hair consists of protein, so eating sufficient protein, especially at breakfast, is vital to strong, healthy hair.”

The best scalp treatments do not claim to replace clinical cures; rather, they deliver relaxation, pleasure, and a healthy hair boost. “Scalp therapies are becoming more popular because while people appear to be under more stress these days, there is also a general trend in favor of health and wellness,” says Hazel Dawson, spa director of LaSource in Granada, where the native-influenced Arawak Head Massage has become one of the most popular spa therapies on the menu. “Our guests are taking better care of themselves ¦and that includes pampering their crowning glories.”

Winter Warmer

Recipe courtesy of the Vedic Health Team at The Raj

Coconut oil, traditionally used in India to hydrate and soften the hair, is also a great remedy for a dry, itchy scalp. Mix with sesame oil, another Ayurvedic ingredient that is beneficial for all body types, and you have a wonderful wintertime treatment.


2 tsp. coconut oil

2 tsp. sesame oil


Warm the oils gently in a pan or a double-boiler. When they are warm but not hot, massage them into your hair and scalp with your fingertips using light-to-medium pressure. Make little circles from the base of your hair up to the crown, making sure to massage the oil into the exterior folds of your ears, as that has a very good settling effect on the nervous system. You may shampoo your hair if you wish, or you can keep the mixture on overnight for deeper conditioning.

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