There was a noticeable gap in the Black hair care aisle at my local drugstore over the weekend. Mielle Organic’s now TikTok viral rosemary mint scalp and hair-strengthening oil was sold out. Elsewhere on Amazon, sellers have ramped up the price from £9.99 to £29 for a single bottle, with the hair oil quickly becoming gold dust. I’m hardly surprised. Over the past week, Mielle’s oil — praised for retaining hair length in kinky, coily hair — has been at the centre of a heated debate after white TikTokers promoted the product on their large social platforms. “It’s out of stock everywhere,” read multiple tweets from Black consumers last week. “We really can’t keep anything for ourselves,” another tweet read. The oil’s sudden increased popularity has ignited fears that this Black-owned brand could become the latest to turn its back on its core Black consumers by changing its formulas to cater for straighter hair types. And, given the long list of things Black people want/need to gatekeep in 2023 (oxtail! plantain!), it appears Black-owned hair products are currently a high priority.
How exactly did we get here?
Mielle Organics rosemary mint scalp and hair strengthening oil is a product by Black entrepreneur Monique Rodriguez (aka The Queen of Hair) and features more than 30 essential oils, including caster oil. The oil, which is applied to the scalp, is infused with biotin, a vitamin known to help prevent hair loss. By the looks of the marketing, Mielle Organics products unambiguously cater to Black hair types and are recommended by the company to use “on protective styles, including braids and weaves.”
On December 29, Tiktoker Alix Earle, who has more than 3.5 million TikTok followers, recommended the hair oil in her 2022 Amazon favourites video claiming she saw “tremendous hair growth” in just a month. Though Earle is one of many white influencers who have also preached the benefits of oiling your scalp with the product, few have what many have dubbed the ‘Alix Earle effect’: the ability to sell out products within minutes. While Earle’s video is innocuous enough, Black women sounded off in her comment section: “please don’t sell out the Mielle, I’m begging.”
The debate heated up across social media platforms, with one Twitter user stating “If you don’t have textured hair and you’re buying the Mielle Organics hair oil, please stop and let Black people keep things that were made for them…” while others have tried to dissuade white people from buying the product by cunningly suggesting at-home hair relaxers as a “deep conditioning” alternative (y’all are very bad… and hilarious).
By now, we’ve all come to understand just how great of an influence beauty creators, especially ones who are white with millions of followers in their back pockets, have on our beauty buying habits. While the marker of a beauty product’s success is how quickly and how much it sells out (the scarcity of the product further fuelling the demand), for Black consumers like me, there’s already a scarcity of products made for us, by us. In June 2022, Mckinsey released its Black Representation In The Beauty Industry Report, revealing that Black Americans “show an affinity and preference for Black beauty brands and are 2.2 times as likely to conclude that products from those brands will work for them.” However, as the report adds, “only four to seven percent of beauty brands carried by speciality beauty stores, drugstores, grocery stores, and department stores are Black brands.”
Black hair care aisles in major stocklists are relatively smaller compared to the aisles and aisles of products designed for straighter hair types. In late 2022, Black British hair care subscription company Treasure Tress claimed in its Textured Hair Trend report, “47% of those with textured kinky or curly hair confirmed that they do not feel as though any of the top 10 hair care companies cater to their hair type.” The same report also states that products for naturally textured hair are “more expensive, more difficult to access and are used more frequently than products for those with straight hair; resulting in an increased cost to the consumer.” For these reasons, it makes seeing an affordable product created specifically for Black women now sold out (or prices increased) because of someone who has plenty of other options hard to digest.
“Black women have legitimate reasons to side-eye white folks ‘discovering’ Mielle hair oil. When brands BW [Black women] single-handedly kept afloat start chasing white money, they raise prices, change formulas, and erase BW from their image…”
Professor Uju Anya
@naaashitey #stitch with @keishatahirih there are just some products that are made for my community and not yours, consuming a product that is not made for you not only hurts our community, but it hurts you too. #blackhair #hairoil #hairgrowth #mielleorganics #miellehairproducts #miellehairoil ♬ original sound - Naa Asheley Afua Ashitey
Many have been quick to disregard Black women’s concerns about white influencers co-opting Black hair products, techniques and trends (a common theme). But, it’s not just oil and the discussion points to a wider issue. TikTok is a hotbed for appropriating beauty techniques, from so-called “hair slugging” to TikTok’s brown lip liner trend, which basically rehashes a well-known look from Black and brown communities. It’s exhausting. In this particular instance, hair oiling plays a significant role in Black and South Asian hair care and, while various oils can be used on all hair textures, it’s reasonable to suggest people use products designed specifically for their hair type.
Professor Uju Anya, a linguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University put it best over Twitter: “Black women have legitimate reasons to side-eye white folks ‘discovering’ Mielle hair oil. When brands BW [Black women] single-handedly kept afloat start chasing white money, they raise prices, change formulas, and erase BW from their image…”
Anya and other commentators allege that some popular Black-owned beauty brands switched up their formulas, erased Black women from their marketing and ramped up their pricing when they decided to cater to a wider range of hair types (leaving Black scalps dry and parched in the process). Shea Moisture fell out of favour with some Black consumers when it was sold to Unilever in 2017. The brand’s video campaign featured no women with 4C hair and while Shea Moisture issued an apology, it faced further backlash when it reportedly changed its formulas to suit white hair types. Cantu and Carol’s Daughter have also witnessed similar criticism after they were purchased by major cosmetics companies. These big budget acquisitions of Black-owned hair companies have been dubbed the “gentrification of hair care” and given the evidence, is not a farfetched statement. In my own experience, there have been many former hair care favourites that I’ve had to relegate to the “no longer works” pile before continuing on my never-ending journey of trial and error.
Mielle Organics has responded to the ongoing discussions and it seems the brand has no plans to neglect its original consumer base. “We've been together on this ride for a while,” says Rodriguez, Mielle’s founder and CEO, in a statement released to Instagram last week. “So you know that my journey with Mielle started from a place of creating the product I wasn't finding in the marketplace. We remain forever committed to developing quality, efficacious products that address the needs states for our customers' hair types! Sincerely, The Queen of Hair.”
It sounds promising to my ears, yet others are far more cynical. As one Black Twitter user wrote, “It’s hair oil. Everyone regardless of race oils their scalp. If the owner of Mielle changes their formula/price to appeal to a wider market they’ve succeeded in using your quest for representation to turn a profit.”
They added: “These companies aren’t doing a public good, they’re trying to make money, the sooner people realise that the better. If you’re so pressed, write to their corporate office rather than getting mad at random white women on TikTok.”
Of course, no one wants to stop a Black-owned, female-led business’ bag, and I don’t believe the recent attention will hurt the company either. Mielle Organics received significant investment in 2021 to help them innovate and develop new products and making a return on that investment will likely come from more people using their products globally.
It’s difficult to police consumers of any race, nor is that the real aim (or even possible) — and let’s be clear, the Mielle hair oil is equally being snapped up by Black consumers. But it is also a fact that there is clear inequity in the beauty market when it comes to catering to Black consumers. With this in mind, it’s reasonable to expect that the companies claiming to serve us continue to do just that.