Southern mothers know that Crisco is the secret to achieving a perfectly flaky pie crust or a delectably crumbly crisp. When testing a reader recipe for Pumpkin Chocolate-Chip Cookies, our Test Kitchen found that shortening brought a pillowy, cakey texture to the cookies that butter simply couldn’t match. Growing up, the signature blue shortening can was a staple in my pantry, as it probably was in yours. But when I was 9 years old, my mom found another application for Crisco: She used it as a hair treatment.
To be honest, I never thought much of the Crisco incident until a few weeks ago, when my coworkers were discussing unconventional beauty treatments. One of the beauty writers mentioned all-natural hair masks, and I chimed in: “Oh, my mom used to rub Crisco in my hair.”
The Beauty Editor looked like she’d seen a ghost. “What in the world,” she said.
She probed me with questions of why my mom could have possibly smothered my hair in Crisco, and to be honest, I didn’t really have many answers. All I really remembered was the starchy feeling of kitchen grease soaking into my scalp.
“I think it had something to do with lice?” I posed.
“Well you should call her and find out,” she said. So I did just that.
In my small suburban town, lice was a pandemic. The short, but activity-packed window from August to October—starting with the kids’ return from sleepaway camp and running through the first weeks of school—was peak lice season. Almost all of my childhood friends caught lice at some point. One local woman even made a business out of it; she dubbed herself “The Lice Lady” and spent her days combing through kids’ hair and flushing the nits out of their scalps. The Lice Lady’s services became so popular that she set up station at the summer-camp bus stop, waiting for campers to return, and offered free lice checks on the spot.
So like everyone else I know, I eventually got lice. This was before the advent of the Lice Lady, so my mom tackled the mission herself. She sat 9-year-old me down in the bathtub and spent three hours fine-tooth-combing the fully-grown lice out of my hair.
“It was traumatizing. I was a young mom with lice the size of flies dropping out of your head and stuffed animals all over the house. What was I supposed to do?” my mom said.
Naturally she pulled out the Crisco.
After she combed out all the lice, she smothered the roots of my hair in shortening, massaging it into my scalp. It felt like thick, squeaky grease. She sealed it in with a shower cap and I slept like that, on freshly washed sheets (another precaution against the lice), Crisco soaking into my thin blonde hair. Just imagine: a luxurious leave-in conditioner treatment, but it smells like kitchen grease.
Not only did my mom subject me to this treatment, but as an extra precaution, she used the same treatment on my younger sister Maddie, who was completely lice-free. Ah to be a younger sister.
The next day, it took hours to scrub the Crisco out of my hair, but it took even longer to wash out Maddie’s hair, which is much thicker than mine.
A few weeks ago, when I asked my mom why she turned to the tub of shortening, she said the idea behind the strategy was to seal in and smother any remaining lice, cutting off their oxygen supply. She explained that the technique derived from her method for removing tics from my dog’s fur. First, you cover it in a glob of Vaseline the size of a gumdrop, smothering the tic. Then you use tweezers to pluck the tic out.
“So you treated me like the dog?” I said.
“Well yes!” My mom exclaimed, not a hint of hesitation in her voice.
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Since my mom had already combed all the lice out of my hair before the Crisco bath, I can’t say for certain if it made any difference. So I turned to the Internet to see if the treatment really had any legitimacy. In terms of actually treating lice, Pediatric Partners refers to my mom’s strategy as the “Drowning Method;” it instructs to massage solid shortening into the hair, cover it with a shower cap and leave it to soak for 8-10 hours before rinsing it out. “Dish detergent may be helpful in removing the oil,” the site recommends. Yikes.
But it turns out that Crisco may have a practical beauty use. I found that Naturally Curly, a blog focused on natural and textured hair, praises the shortening as a sealant for naturally curly hair. Naturally Curly compares the technique to a hot oil treatment: “Vegetable shortening, including the Crisco brand, contains fatty acids and often times vitamin E which is great for hair. Those who have tried this treatment discovered their hair stays tamed and smooth for days, if not weeks.” Since Crisco is essentially just oil in solid form, some also use the kitchen staple as a hair moisturizer or conditioner.
In my Internet scouring, I also stumbled upon a few videos of cheery-eyed YouTube bloggers documenting their hair experiments with Crisco. They mixed the shortening with another oil (coconut oil or castor oil) and applied it to their curls. By the end of the videos, however, many of the bloggers no longer looked so cheery—they reported that the Crisco grease provided great definition, but left grease stains on fabrics or car headrests. Nonetheless a few vowed to try it again.
Next time you’re out of conditioner or you start feeling the tell-tale lice itch, maybe you should just pull out the can of Crisco. I can’t guarantee that you’ll have positive results, but hey, it may just work in a pinch. I’m not sure I’m ready to relive that childhood Crisco soak, but if you’re brave enough to try it, let me know the results.