Last updated on 1/09/22
Many people have been led to believe that oils and butter are too heavy for curly hair to be healthy. However, the truth is that these substances can actually help your hair retain moisture.
It can be a bit confusing when it comes to using oils and butter in haircare, especially if you have curly hair.
Do you put them in your hair before you style it, or after?
And what about co-washes – do they count as an oil or butter?
Oils and butter can do wonders for curly hair. They help to lock in moisture, add shine, and tame frizz.
In this post, we’ll review the science of oils and butter, their characteristic properties, and how to choose the right oil for a particular hair type.
What are Oils and Butter?
Oils and butter are esters of long-chain fatty acids known as triglycerides. In this instance, the term triglyceride stands as “tri means three,” while glycerides represent “glycerin.”
It means oil or butter are esters of long-chain fatty acids with glycerin. Three molecular chains of fatty acids are bonded to one glycerin molecule, as depicted in the structure below.
Both oil and butter are chemically the same materials; however, they have different physical states at room temperature.
Oil is a liquid while butter is solid (e.g., Olive oil is liquid whereas Cocoa butter is solid); this is due to the difference in their chemical composition, which contains varying amounts of different fatty acids.
Oils contain mostly unsaturated fatty acids, while butter is generally saturated fatty acids. The presence of one or two unsaturated fatty acids double bond lowers down the melting point of oils and keeps them in the liquid state.
Double bond refers to the carbon to carbon bonding ( – C = C – ) where two carbon atoms are tightly held. The double bond molecules demonstrate a lower melting point, as is the case with olive and sunflower oil.
Butter, on the other hand, has more saturated carbon bonds that facilitate their crystallization and boost their physical texture and melting point.
This difference greatly influences their properties and performance in hair care formulations.
I will discuss this later in more detail.
Are Curly Hair Oils and Butter Something New?
Nope! They are not something new in curly hair care.
The practice of using oils for hair for softening, detangling, and styling treatments is confirmed by historical records. Using oils for scalp massages was also popular in Ancient Egyptian culture.
In fact, some of the first recorded recipes for conditioning curly hair were all about using oils and natural hair butter. Consider the days of slavery, when people were enslaved. They used bacon grease, lard, butter, kerosene, etc. to take care of their hair.
Asians have also used oils and butter in their hair care routine for centuries, especially coconut oil. South Asia is famous for its Ayurvedic medicine, which features some of the world’s most potent beauty treatments created from natural ingredients.
I can go on and on, but that was just a glimpse into a little history of oils and butter for hair.
Plant-sourced oils or fats are excellent emollients for skin or softening the hair. We use oils or fats in our diets, such as olive oil and butter (obtained from cow’s milk).
Modern hair care technologies also utilize the benefits of natural oils, either directly or in the emulsion system with reduced particle size for oil droplets.
If we randomly review the ingredients list of some of our hair conditioners, masks, or treatment products, we will find multiple oils or butter incorporated into a given formulation.
Almost every single product you find on the market will have one or two natural oils or butter. This indicates their importance and efficacy for hair care.
Olive, Coconut, and Shea butter have been used for ages for skin and hair care. Oil for hair has a lot of favorable feedback from customers; nevertheless, not everyone agrees.
Some consumers do not like using oils or butter on their hair, as they may leave the hair feeling heavy and greasy.
Oil and Hair Protein Interactions: What You Need to Know
Oil or butter are hydrophobic materials, which means they do not dissolve in a water solvent. They are water repellent and form a water-resistant film preventing any interaction with water.
The same happens when we apply oil or butter to the hair surface. Hair is made up of keratin protein, and its cuticles are the outermost layer, which contains a very minute layer of oily material called F-layer.
This hydrophobic layer ensures the natural lubricity and water repellency of hair. Furthermore, sebum is an oily material that is secreted by the sebaceous glands and it provides extra lubricity and shine.
Applying oil or butter on the hair will form a fine coating over the hair shaft. Their molecular adhesion depends upon their interaction with the F-layer.
Both are non-polar and bind with each other via dipole-dipole interaction (a weak chemical bonding between hydrophobic groups).
This chemical bond, though weak, is still sufficient to bind oil molecules with hair. This binding strongly depends upon the chemical composition of oil/butter, viscosity, and density.
Composition of Popular Oils and Butter
There are a variety of natural oils and natural hair butter on the market for hair care. They vary in their chemical composition, texture, color, viscosity, and density.
Their chemical composition defines their performance and efficacy as well as their behavior when applied to the hair or skin.
The above two charts show that oils contain high levels of unsaturated fatty acids, while butter is rich with saturated fatty acids. This explains their physical state at room temperature.
Oils have more oleic acid (mono-unsaturated) and are liquid, while butter has more palmitic or stearic acid and is semi-solid.
Furthermore, lower carbon chain fatty content provides a fine coating without any greasiness, while long carbon chains are dense and are a stronger lubricant; however, they might be difficult to apply and may have or leave a heavy or feel.
Oils That Penetrate Vs. Coat the Hair
The chart above (figure) demonstrates that the fatty acid composition also influences hair fiber penetration.
Hair fibers have tiny pores that allow the conditioning actives to enter deeply into the hair cortex’s center. The size of the active molecule and the pore size play a role in determining penetration.
The larger the carbon chain is, the bigger the molecular size; hence more difficult to penetrate. Therefore, oil or butter mainly composed of saturated long-chain fatty acids may not penetrate and can only form a coating on the hair shaft.
Butter falls mostly into this category, while oils with a lower carbon chain can penetrate and offer better conditioning.
Scientific studies have revealed that coconut oil, composed mainly of only lauric acid (12 carbon chain units), has better penetration potential when compared to Shea butter, which has higher levels of stearic acid (saturated 18 carbon unit).
In the above tables, you can see the carbon chain length mentioned (C with the number) and in case of unsaturation highlighted as (C18:1), where C stands for carbon, 18 means there are 18 carbon attached (stearic), and 1 denotes one double bond present in the chain.
Choosing the Right Oils and Butter for Your Hair
Choosing the right oil or natural hair butter for your hair type is essential.
You must take into account the diameter of your hair shaft, porosity level, and natural sebum production. These factors have an impact on the results and a wrong choice may lead to greasy, dull hair that lacks shine.
However, if an undesired result occurs, it does not mean that all oils or butter are bad or harmful to your hair, or that you should never it. There’s a possibility that the incorrect oil was used at the wrong time or that a non-recommended approach was used.
It is all comes down to choosing the right oil for curly hair. A careful examination of your hair type along with the chemical composition of oil and butter can help guide us in choosing which oil is best for your hair.
We all have different types of hair so let’s look at how to choose the best oil.
First, let’s start with some fundamental rules:
- For high sebum secretion or oily hair – please avoid applying any oil, especially in large amounts. If you still want to use them, then use oils that have a higher unsaturated fatty content.
Olive, argan, grapeseed, or sunflower are excellent choices. Please use it in small amounts and less frequently.
- For fine hair with a smaller diameter and with low hair density – use fine, high unsaturated fatty oil.
- For thick, dry, or excessively damaged hair (especially chemically treated) – use more saturated fatty acid. Shea butter and mango butter are excellent for this.
Asian Straight Hair
Asian hair is mostly straight and fine. This hair type tends to get weighed down, as it can experience heaviness easily.
We recommend you use argan or sunflower oil once or twice a week as a treatment.
Chemically treated, bleached or colored hairs can mix Shea butter with argan oil for a superior coating and shine.
Wavy hairs have a slightly higher degree of curvature. Scientific reports suggest they are weak at certain points along the hair shaft.
If you are looking for a more natural look and bouncy curls, we advise you to use oils in very small quantities to avoid heaviness.
Massaging a few drops of sunflower, olive, or jojoba oil should be enough.
Applying hair butter may not work and may make your hair greasy.
We recommended using butter in an emulsion system (i.e. conditioner or mask) where the droplet size for butter has been reduced with the help of emulsion technology.
Natural Coily Hair
Natural coily hair is excessively curly, dry, and fragile. This hair type has a small diameter and is more challenging to detangle and style.
Those with natural coily hair understand their hair’s special requirements for a concentrated formulation that provides extra moisturization and conditioning.
Hair oils are ideal for this type of hair. Butters can be applied directly to the hair, as they are rich in saturated fatty acids.
Shea butter is a perfect recipe due to its semi-solid texture and lubricity. It also provides gloss. Argan Oil is also an excellent choice due to its high oleic acid content.
Chemically Treated Hair
Chemically treated hairs are more porous, fragile, and difficult to comb due to the rough cuticular layer at the hair shaft’s surface.
They require a strategy with moisture and preservation to maintain the hair moisture level.
Fine oils with low tackiness are ideal for this job. Sunflower or grapeseed are thin oils and are highly recommended.
How to Avoid or Control Oil Build Up
Oils and butter may cause build-up on the hair shaft, which occurs due to the repeated oil application in relatively large quantities.
Such build-up leaves the hair with a greasy and oily feel. With the build up, oily hair will attract more pollution carbon particulates that stick to hair fibers’ oily surface, which will make the hair dirty, sticky, and dull.
How can we control oil build-up?
- Choose your oil carefully while keeping in mind your natural sebum secretion.
- Don’t use an excessive quantity of oils and butter.
- Apply in small portions, massaging them thoroughly using your fingers.
- Only apply when needed
- Avoid excessive, repeated applications.
- Preferably clarify your hair with a clarifying shampoo before the next application.
Oils or butter have been in personal care use for literally centuries. They are time-tested, non-toxic natural products that are excellent for their lubricity and conditioning.
However, not all oils are suitable for you.
Consumers need to examine their hair type, sebum secretion, and hair texture to choose an oil. It will take trial and error to identify your ideal oil and or butter.
There’s always one that delivers the appropriate amount of conditioning and hair protection for your hair.
A single oil failure does not imply that every other oil will fail you in the same way. It could take several trials and errors before you find the perfect one for you.
Lastly, as I always say, let your hair be your guide!