Natural Oils and butters have been used since ancient times. They are known for their conditioning properties, and plant-sourced emollients like mustard oil, coconut oil, and shea butter were the top choices for dry, brittle, and damaged hairs. They have multiple positive aspects and advantages for hair care. They offer ease in wet and dry combing, reduce fiber to fiber friction, provide hydrophobic coating at the cuticular surface and impart shin. Besides this, they are sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Coconut oil is among one of the first emollients discovered by humans for its benefits for hair. You can see it added in a wide range of skin and hair care products on the market by simply looking at the ingredients list of various products. Moreover, it is used as a carbon feedstock to manufacture various chemicals, surfactants, emollients, and other actives. In these terms, it is probably the second most demanded source of carbon in the personal care industry (the 1st being palm oil). This is important to highlight, as coconut oil usage in cosmetics, toiletries, and the personal hygiene industry is huge.
There have been discussions on the adverse effect of using coconut oil on the hair. People have reported experiencing hair dullness, dry, and brittle hair after using coconut oil. I believe there is a lot of misunderstanding and misusage of this excellent ingredient. In today’s blog, I will discuss coconut oil in detail, its science, and how we can get the maximum benefits out of it. I will discuss misconceptions about other ingredients derived from raw coconut oil and also what could be the reason for experiencing adverse effects after using coconut oil.
The Science of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is extracted from wet or dry coconut kernels. The industry employs various extraction techniques, which impact the properties of the end product. The dried kernel offers almost 60% of its mass, and this oil has its characteristic taste, color, and odor. Coconut oil resembles palm oil for its chemical composition. Oil is a glycerol ester of long-chain fatty acids, and the chemical composition varies from plant to plant. Coconut oil has high saturated fatty acid accounting for approximately 80% of the total composition. Its fatty-acid composition shows that lauric acid is the most abundant component, which comprises 12 carbon units with straight saturated chain length. The relatively higher levels of saturated fatty acids raise the melting point of coconut oil (24 oC), which contributes to the sensorial properties and texture of the product. The presence of all saturated carbon centers also demonstrates a higher ability of coconut oil against oxidation. That is why coconut oil has a long shelf life and does not undergo autoxidation during storage, and this is translated into emulsion (cream, lotion, or pomade) stability.
Benefits of Coconut Oil for Hair: A literature review
Coconut oil has a long traditional history in hair and skincare. In recent times, cosmetic scientists have examined its efficacy and benefits using innovative and modern analytical techniques. An important desire for any consumer is to have natural looking hair with ease of daily styling and manageability. Any natural oil, butter, or haircare product is needed to accomplish this, as water alone is insufficient. The key features for oil applications are preserving the hair mechanical strength, especially against chemical treatments, ease of combing, improving hair hydrophobicity & water retention, and enhancing hair shine (light reflection).
Let’s review some literature published in detail that specifically studied the benefits of coconut oil.
Protein Loss & Water Retention
Rele & Mohile studied the role of coconut oil in preventing protein loss and water from hair fibers. They published two research papers in the Journal of Society of Cosmetic Chemists, JSCC, 1999 & 2003. The results demonstrated that coconut oil is efficient in preserving the integrity of hair fibers. They examined its benefits for all types of hairs with different ethnic backgrounds and natural and chemically or thermally treated hairs. In all cases, coconut oil showed superiority for hair conditioning. In the second report, they compared coconut oil against mineral oil and sunflower oil. Once again, they found coconut oil was better in improving hair quality even under harsh chemical treatments. They argued that high lauric acid content helps the penetration of coconut oil droplets through cuticle layers, which prevent excessive swelling during washing and bleaching treatments. Mineral oil, being a large molecular hydrocarbon, and sunflower oil, being an oleic acid (C18:1), having relatively large molecular structures are unable to penetrate hair fibers.
Mass Spectrometric Proof of Penetration
Further studies were conducted by famous hair scientists YK Kamath, who employed the highly precise mass spectrometric technique to demonstrate coconut oil penetration. The results endorsed earlier findings and showed the mechanism of its penetration. The spectroscopic data showed that mineral oil could not penetrate the hair fiber, while coconut oil having a smaller molecular size of lauric acid could penetrate the hair fiber.
In summary, the scientific studies found:
• Coconut Oil preserves the protein structure of the hair
• It prevents protein loss during chemical and thermal treatments, thus preserve the mechanical strength of hair
• Improves hair moisturization by minimizing water loss
• It is effective both as pre-treatment and post-treatment (though results show pre-treatment is more beneficial)
There are also reports highlighting protection against UV radiation with the use of coconut oil. Skincare benefits have also been documented in the literature, however, that is beyond this article’s scope.
Popular Myth & Misunderstanding about Coconut oil and Its Derivatives
The positive and beneficial effects of coconut oil are proven scientifically. However, in recent reports, blogs, and web pages, the drawbacks of using coconut oil on the hair have been reported. Consumers have also shared their experience in online forums and have reported their dissatisfaction with using coconut oil. To be honest, some of their reports are genuine and understandable; however, it has nothing to do with coconut oil. It has more to do with how you apply coconut oil and under what circumstances you used it. We’ll come back to address that a little later, but first, what is the mystery, myth, and misunderstanding about coconut oil?
“Coconut sensitivity” is a term used by bloggers. The claim is that all chemicals having “lauric” or “laurate” or even “laureth” can induce similar adverse results and should be avoided. According to my Hair Scientist friend, this is not true and is just not scientifically correct.
Green Active with a Long Trusted History
First, we know that coconut oil is a green eco-friendly natural ingredient. Just like other oils and butter, it is gentle and mild. Dermatological studies have not shown any allergic or adverse effects upon applying the oil on the skin or scalp surface. Also, coconut oil has a long, trusted history for thousands of years, and consumers worldwide trust natural products. Consumers are looking for sustainable, environmentally friendly actives that are gentle to the skin.
Misconceptions about Lauric Acid Derivatives
Coconut oil is extensively used as a feedstock for the synthesis of various chemicals. It is second in demand as a carbon chain source, which is employed to manufacture other ingredients. Lauric acid ester is a light molecular ester which is commonly added in personal care formulation for emollience. Others like laurates are used as emulsifiers in preparing creams and lotions. Sorbitan laurate is an excellent example of a preferred emulsifier with good moisturizing properties besides emulsification.
Lauryl & Laureth: Coconut Derivatives
“Lauryl” & “Laureth” are chemical family derivatives from coconut oil. They are multiple ingredients with this term utilized in various formulations. For example, we find these ingredients in shampoo formulations, like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, as both are popular surfactant, cleansing agents. Both are synthesized using 12- carbon chain obtained from palm kernel oil or coconut oil with the sulfonation process. However, this does not mean they are the same and equivalent to their starting material i.e. coconut oil. The chemical modification (sulfonation) gives us a new molecule with significantly different physical and chemical properties.
For example, we cannot clean our hands using coconut oil. It will not remove dirt or greasy stuff from our hands, skin, and hair, whereas lauryl & laureth are the cleansing agent. Also, coconut oil does not generate any foam in the water, while these cleansing agents produce significant foam volume in water solution.
Therefore, this is a misconception that every ingredient having lauric acid, lauryl, or laureth can induce coconut sensitivity, as they are different chemicals and have different properties.
What Could Go Wrong with Using Coconut Oil?
Overcoming the misunderstanding and misconception is very important because we must substantiate our story scientifically. The fact is that no single active (oil, butter, or any other chemical conditioner) can satisfy every single consumer. Simply put, different consumers prefer or like a different brand, class, or type of product over another. I like shea butter for my hair while you may like Mango butter. Scientifically, it has more to do with our type of hair, its current condition or history, and how we use these oils or butter.
We understand that some consumers may have had adverse or negative results on applying coconut oil to their hair. Let’s generalize what could be the reason for negative effects with coconut oil.
Applying too much
Some consumers use oils as a treatment mask and apply too much oil to hair and or scalp with a sense that “more is better.” However, our golden rule always that “Less is always more.” Applying oil requires some finger work to make sure oil is uniformly massaged through.
Outer weather conditions
The effect of outside temperature and humidity level is a well-known issue in the curly hair community. Coconut oil has a melting point of 24-25 oC, and it solidifies during winter. Applying coconut oil on hair during winter conditions is tricky. Coconut oil would melt on the skin as our body temperature (37 oC) is higher than its melting point; however, it may not be the case for hair. Coconut oil may solidify in small flakes or pellets if applied too much under winter conditions. These tiny solid flakes can make our hair look unattractive, dull, and rigid.
Hair texture and history
Different ethnic backgrounds have different types of hair. European, Asian, and African hair differ for their diameter, texture, and surface properties. Also, chemically treated hairs are dry, difficult to comb, and at times damaged compared to natural or virgin hair due to the loss of the cuticular layer, which means that this would alter the hair’s response to different hair conditioning products.
For excessively damaged and dry hair, coconut oil is an excellent remedy; however, we must remember that damaged hair has large-sized pores. Hence, coconut oil penetrates easily and, in large amounts, can overload the concentration of oil inside the hair fiber. Also, too much oil inside the hair would leave no space for water molecules and result in hair feeling more dried — this is a potential reason why the consumers have experienced negative results with coconut oil.
Who & How Should We Apply Coconut Oil?
Follow the steps to get the most of this magical natural ingredient:
Analyze your hair condition beforehand
Don’t use oil every day; it might be too much for your hair
Once a week is a maximum for natural hair; I recommend once every two weeks only
Try to figure out it carefully
Coconut oil can be used as a leave-in or treatment mask; however, do it only when your hair REQUIRES it. Remember, too much oil can make hair look dull. I strongly advise using a coconut oil mask (emulsion cream, lotion) instead of using raw natural oil because emulsion contains tiny droplets of oil dispersed in the water phase, which offers a balanced formulation with uniform application across the hair shaft.
For extremely damaged hair, mix it with other humectant formulation; you need a mixture of oil and humectant
Always use mild and gentle anti-residue shampoo to remove any build-up.
Remember, your hair requires a multi-dimensional hair care strategy, it should include emollient, humectant, and conditioning polymer.
Coconut oil is an excellent natural hair conditioner. It is one of the few natural oils scientifically proven to improve hair fibers’ quality for every type of hair. However, you need to figure out how and when to use it.
Don’t be scared of it; remember it is natural and time tested with proven efficacy and results.
Explore it, try mixing it with different other oils and humectants; this may enhance your hair quality and offer you even better hair manageability.
1. Robbins, C. R., Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. 4th ed.; Springer-Verlag: New York, 2002; p 311-343.
2. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005.
3. Rele, A. S.; Mohile, R., Effect of coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. Part I. J. Cosmet. Sci. 1999, 50 (6), 327-339.
4. Rele, A. S.; Mohile, R. B., Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. J. Cosmet. Sci. 2003, 54 (2), 175-192.
5. Ruetsch, S.; Kamath, Y.; Rele, A. S., Secondary ion mass spectrometric investigation of penetration of coconut and mineral oils into human hair. J. Cosmet. Sci 2001, 52, 169-184.