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Myth Buster: Coconut Oil for Curly Hair

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Table of Contents

Learn why coconut oil for curly hair is not bad as some are claiming.

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Debates have arisen regarding the impact of coconut oil on curly hair health, with some individuals of different hair types reporting issues such as dullness, dryness, and brittleness after use. We believe that this remarkable ingredient may suffer from misconceptions and improper application, which can vary depending on different hair types.

Coconut oil for curly hair is widely recognized as a natural remedy with distinct advantages. Its exceptional ability to deeply penetrate hair strands sets it apart from conventional oils, typically creating only surface-level coatings.

There are specific conditions in which it may not yield the desired results. It is crucial to understand these circumstances before incorporating them into your hair care routine.

In today’s discussion, we will delve into the science behind coconut oil, exploring its potential benefits and addressing any misconceptions surrounding its use on curly hair.

To ensure the accuracy of our information, we’ve collaborated with a friend of mine, a seasoned hair scientist and cosmetic formulator with a PhD in Chemistry. He brings his extensive expertise to shed light on the subject further.

What is Coconut Oil? The Science Behind It

Coconut oil is a versatile, edible oil that is extracted from the flesh (copra) of coconuts, the large seeds of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera).

Using various techniques, coconut oil, extracted from wet or dry coconut kernels, consists primarily of glycerol esters of long-chain fatty acids.

It’s rich in saturated fatty acids (about 80%), mainly lauric acid, which comprises 12 carbon units with a straight saturated chain length.

This composition gives it a high melting point (24°C), affecting its texture and shelf life, making it resistant to oxidation.1

Chart showing the fatty acid profile of coconut oil for curly hair

Benefits of Coconut Oil for Curly Hair

Image of a coconut half opened and coconut oil in a jar, coconut oil on a teaspoon.

Coconut oil has a long traditional history in hair and skincare.2 Cosmetic researchers have recently investigated its effectiveness and advantages through cutting-edge and modern analytical methods.

Achieving healthy hair goes beyond water; it involves incorporating natural ingredients, such as oils, butter, or specialized haircare products into your hair routine.

The primary objectives and coconut oil benefits are as follows:

  1. Preserve and safeguard the mechanical strength of hair, particularly when exposed to chemical treatments.
  2. Mitigate hygral fatigue, reducing the risk of hair damage and hair loss from repeated swelling and drying cycles.
  3. Facilitate easier combing of the hair.
  4. Enhance the hair’s ability to repel water (hydrophobicity) while improving its capacity to retain moisture.
  5. Enhance the natural shine and overall appearance of the hair.
  6. Lubricates and conditions the scalp, alleviating dry scalp and reducing itching or flakiness, promoting a healthy scalp.3,4

Let’s delve into a detailed examination of specific literature that has extensively studied the advantages of coconut oil.

Hair Protein Preservation and Hydration

Curly haired girl putting oil on hair.

Researchers Rele and Mohile conducted a comprehensive study to investigate the role of coconut oil in preventing protein loss and maintaining hydration in hair fibers.

Their findings were published in two research papers; in the Journal of Society of Cosmetic Chemists (JSCC) in 1999 3 and 2003. 4

Their research revealed:

  • Coconut oil effectively preserves the structural integrity of hair fibers.
  • Their study encompassed various hair types, including those from different ethnic backgrounds, as well as natural and chemically or thermally treated hair.

In their second report, Rele and Mohile compared coconut oil with mineral oil and sunflower oil as hair treatments.

Once again, coconut oil demonstrated its superiority in improving hair quality, even when subjected to harsh chemical treatments.

Their research revealed:

  • The effectiveness is attributed to the high lauric acid content in coconut oil.
  • Lauric acid facilitates the penetration of coconut oil droplets into the hair’s cuticle layers.
  • This penetration aids in preventing excessive swelling during washing and bleaching.
  • In contrast, mineral oil’s large molecular size and sunflower oil’s relatively large molecular structures make them less effective at penetrating hair fibers.

Mass Spectrometric: Evidence of Coconut Oil Penetration in Hair Fibers

Girl showing hair strands to represent blog about coconut oil penetration.

Additional research conducted by renowned hair scientist S.B. Ruetsch and collaborators utilized the precise mass spectrometric technique to provide conclusive evidence of coconut oil penetration.5

These findings align with earlier publications and reinforce the understanding of how coconut oil penetrates hair fibers.

The spectroscopic data clearly indicated that mineral oil lacked the ability to penetrate hair fibers.

In contrast, coconut oil, with its smaller molecular size primarily due to lauric acid, demonstrated its capability to penetrate hair fibers effectively.

To summarize the scientific studies, they reveal the following benefits of coconut oil for hair:

Graphics of summary of scientific studies on coconut oil

Best Ways to Apply Coconut Oil

Image of my daughter holding coconut oil in her hand.
My coconut oil seems to have a magnetic pull on my daughter, as she’s always swiping it!

To maximize the benefits and achieve the best way of utilizing this remarkable natural ingredient, here are a few different ways to do it:

  1. Assess your hair’s condition beforehand.
  2. Avoid daily use, as it might be excessive.
  3. For natural hair, limit usage to once a week or even once every two weeks.
  4. Experiment thoughtfully to determine the right frequency and the right amount for your hair.
  5. If your hair is extremely damaged (high porosity hair), consider mixing coconut oil with other humectant formulations for a balanced effect.
  6. Always use a mild, gentle clarifying shampoo to remove any product buildup.
  7. Coconut oil can be used as a leave-in or treatment mask on dry hair, not wet hair. Apply it only when your hair truly needs it to avoid making it look dull.

If raw coconut oil doesn’t work well for your hair, you might want to try coconut oil hair masks. These masks are emulsions that distribute evenly along the hair shaft, offering better results.

Opting for these masks instead of raw natural oil can be more beneficial for your hair. These masks are emulsions that consist of small oil droplets dispersed in a water phase. This formulation ensures a balanced application, covering the hair shaft uniformly.

Remember, your hair requires a multi-dimensional hair care strategy, it should include emollient, humectant, and conditioning polymer.

Coconut Oil Hair Masks for Curly Hair



Best Coconut Oils for Curly Hair

Here are a few coconut oil hair products to incorporate into your hair routine.

My favorite coconut oil is the one by Nutiva. It’s pure coconut oil goodness in a jar. I’ve been using this brand for years and love it! all you have to do is emulsify a small of coconut oil in your hands and voila. A little goes a long way!

Image of jar of nutiva coconut oil

If you prefer coconut oil in its liquid state, try this one by Pure Body Naturals.

Image of organic fractionated coconut oil by Pure Body Naturals.

Another coconut oil I love is the one by Dr. Bronner’s. This one is organic certified virgin coconut oil that undergoes expeller pressing, extracting oil from meticulously dried coconut kernels.

I picked mine up from Publix, but you can also get it from Amazon or your local market.

Image of Dr. Bronner's coconut oil

Common Myths and Misunderstandings Surrounding Coconut Oil and Its Derivatives

While there’s scientific evidence supporting the positive effects of coconut oil,2 concerns have arisen in blogs and on social media regarding its use for hair.

Online forums have become platforms for consumers to share their experiences, with some expressing disappointment in using coconut oil.

To be fair, some of these reports are valid and understandable. However, the issues often stem from how coconut oil is applied and the specific circumstances of its use.

We’ll delve deeper into these matters shortly, but first, let’s explore the mystery, myths, and misunderstandings surrounding coconut oil.

Coconut Sensitivity

 “Coconut sensitivity” is a term used by bloggers. The claim is that all chemicals having “lauric” or “laurate” or even “laureth” may lead to similar adverse results and should be avoided.

In pursuit of clarity, I consulted my friend, a Hair Scientist with a PhD in Organic Chemistry and Physical Organic Chemistry. According to his professional assessment, this claim lacks scientific validity and is not accurate.

Read on to learn more about what he shared with me.

Green Active with a Long Trusted History

First, we know that coconut oil is a natural, eco-friendly ingredient. Like other oils and butter, it is gentle and mild.

Dermatological studies have shown minimal incidence of allergic or adverse effects when applying the oil on the skin or scalp surface. 3

Furthermore, coconut oil boasts a well-established and time-tested history, spanning thousands of years. This long history has cultivated global consumer trust in natural products.

Today’s consumers seek skincare solutions that are not only effective but also sustainable and environmentally friendly while remaining gentle on their skin.

Misconceptions about Lauric Acid Derivatives

Coconut oil is extensively used as a feedstock for the synthesis of various chemicals.

It stands as the second-most sought-after source of carbon chains, serving as a vital component for manufacturing various ingredients.

Lauric acid ester, a lightweight molecular ester, is frequently incorporated into personal care formulations to provide emollient properties.

Compounds like laurates serve as effective emulsifiers when creating creams and lotions.

For instance, sorbitan laurate serves as an excellent example of a favored emulsifier, offering not only emulsification but also notable moisturizing properties.

Lauryl and Laureth: Coconut Derivatives

“Lauryl” & “Laureth” are chemical family derivatives of coconut oil. There 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 a 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 and laureth are the cleansing agents.

Also, coconut oil does not generate any foam in the water, while these cleansing agents produce significant foam volume in the 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. 

Exploring Potential Issues with Coconut Oil Usage

It’s important to address the misconception and misunderstanding because we must substantiate our narrative scientifically.

The truth is, no single hair treatment (single active), be it oil, butter, or any other chemical conditioner, can universally satisfy the preferences of every individual.

In essence, personal preferences vary, with each person favoring specific brands, classes, or types of products.

For example, I might prefer shea butter for my hair, while someone else might opt for mango butter.

From a scientific standpoint, these preferences largely hinge on factors such as:

  1. Hair type
  2. Hair’s current condition or history
  3. Application methods for these oils or butter

We acknowledge that some individuals may have experienced adverse effects or negative outcomes when using coconut oil on their hair.

So, let’s examine some potential reasons behind these negative effects of coconut oil on hair.

1. Applying too much

Some consumers use oils as a treatment mask and apply too much oil to their hair and or scalp with a sense that “more is better.”

However, the golden rule is always “Less is more.” Start with a small amount of coconut oil and apply more as needed.

To ensure that the oil is evenly distributed, some fingerwork is required.

2. Outside 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 C, and it solidifies during winter. Applying coconut oil to hair during winter conditions is tricky.

Coconut oil would melt on the skin as our body temperature (37 C) is higher than its melting point; however, this may not be the case for hair.

When applied excessively in cold winter conditions, coconut oil can solidify into small flakes or pellets. These minuscule solid particles can lead to dull, lackluster, and brittle hair.

3. Hair textures and history

Various ethnic backgrounds exhibit distinct hair characteristics. European, Asian, African, and other curl types vary in diameter, texture, and surface properties.6

Also, chemically treated hair is 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, potentially leading to an excessive buildup of oil within the hair strand.

Additionally, an excessive amount of oil within the hair can leave little room for water molecules, potentially causing the hair to feel even drier. This might explain why some consumers have reported negative outcomes with coconut oil.

Summary

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, and try mixing it with different other oils and humectants; this may enhance your hair quality and offer you even better hair manageability.

FAQs

Is coconut oil good for hair follicles?

The lauric acid found in coconut oil has the ability to nourish the hair by penetrating the hair’s cuticle and scalp, where it gets absorbed. There is no definitive evidence to suggest that it promotes healthier hair growth by supporting hair follicles.

Can I put coconut oil on the roots of my hair?

Yes, you can apply coconut oil to the roots of your hair. However, it’s essential to use it sparingly and focus more on the lengths and ends, especially if you have naturally oily hair, as using too much oil on the roots can make your hair appear greasy.

Is coconut oil good for curly hair?

Coconut oil can benefit curly hair by providing conditioning, lubrication, and reducing protein loss.5 However, using excessive amounts, may lead to greasiness. It’s essential to tailor coconut oil usage to your hair type and needs for the best results.

How long to leave coconut oil in curly hair?

Leave coconut oil in curly hair for at least 30 minutes to an hour, or overnight for deep conditioning. Wash thoroughly afterward. The duration depends on your hair’s needs and preferences.

Can coconut oil help with frizzy hair?

Yes, coconut oil can help with frizzy hair. Applying a small amount to the lengths and ends can reduce frizz and add shine. Adjust the quantity based on your hair’s needs and texture.

Should you put coconut oil in your hair before washing it?

Yes, applying coconut oil to your hair before washing is beneficial. It can act as a pre-shampoo treatment to protect against moisture loss during washing and enhance hair health.

Can I use coconut oil on my low-porosity hair?

Coconut oil can be beneficial for low-porosity hair, but it should be used with some considerations. Low porosity hair has a cuticle layer that is tightly “closed”, making it less porous and resistant to moisture absorption.

Coconut oil benefits low-porosity hair by sealing in moisture, acting as a conditioner and working well as a pre-shampoo treatment. Use it sparingly to prevent product buildup, apply with warmth for better absorption, and manage frizz and dryness.

Which is better for curly hair olive oil or coconut oil?

Both olive oil and coconut oil can be beneficial for curly hair, but their effectiveness depends on individual preferences and hair needs.

Olive oil is heavier and can provide deep lubrication, making it suitable for very dry or thick curly hair. Coconut oil is lighter and can penetrate the hair strands and may work better for fine hair. It’s essential to experiment and determine which oil suits your specific hair type and goals.

How can I use essential oil with coconut oil for hair purposes?

To use essential oils with coconut oil for hair, blend a few drops of your chosen essential oil (like lavender, tea tree, or rosemary) with coconut oil.

Apply the mixture to your hair as needed. Essential oils can complement the benefits of coconut oil for hair and add aromatherapeutic advantages. Ensure proper dilution and perform a patch test before use to avoid any adverse reactions.


References

  1. Lima, R. D. S., & Block, J. M. (2019). Coconut oil: what do we really know about it so far?Food Quality and Safety3(2), 61-72. ↩︎
  2.  Deen, A., Visvanathan, R., Wickramarachchi, D., Marikkar, N., Nammi, S., Jayawardana, B. C., & Liyanage, R. (2021). Chemical composition and health benefits of coconut oil: an overview. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture101(6), 2182-2193. ↩︎
  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., Mohile R. B. Secondary ion mass spectrometric investigation of penetration of coconut and mineral oils into human hair. J. Cosmet. Sci 2001, 52, 169-184. ↩︎
  6. Franbourg, A., Hallegot, P., Baltenneck, F., Toutaina, C., & Leroy, F. (2003). Current research on ethnic hair. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology48(6), S115-S119. ↩︎

HI,I'M VERNA

I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

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