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XGBoost Don't Use One-Hot-Encoding

When working with categorical features in XGBoost, one-hot encoding is generally not recommended.

Reasons to Avoid One-Hot-Encoding for XGBoost

While one-hot encoding or dummy variables are commonly used for handling categorical data, there are several reasons why they might not be the best choice when using XGBoost:

  1. Curse of Dimensionality:

    • One-hot encoding can significantly increase the dimensionality of the data, especially if the categorical variables have many unique values. This can lead to increased computational cost and potentially slower training times.
  2. Memory Usage:

    • The increase in the number of features due to one-hot encoding can lead to high memory consumption. This can be problematic for large datasets or environments with limited resources.
  3. Loss of Information:

    • One-hot encoding treats each category as independent, which might not capture the inherent ordering or relationships between categories. For example, in ordinal data, the order of categories matters, but one-hot encoding ignores this information.
  4. Sparsity:

    • One-hot encoding results in sparse matrices, which might not be efficiently handled by all implementations of XGBoost. Sparse matrices can lead to inefficiencies in storage and computation.

The increase in the number of variables from adding dummy variables or one hot encoding will slow down training and model inference.

Additionally, the replacement of features impairs interpretability of feature importance and tree structure


XGBoost can handle categorical variables more efficiently using alternative techniques such as:

XGboost also provides native support for categorical variables by specifying the feature types in your DataFrame and setting the enable_categorical model parameter to True.

By avoiding one-hot encoding and using ordinal encoding or XGBoost’s native categorical support, we can train XGBoost models more efficiently and maintain better interpretability of our models.

See Also