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Oils and Butter in Hair Care

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Verna Meachum

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Plant-sourced oils or fats are excellent emollients for skin or softening the hair. We use oils or fats in our diet, such as olive oil and butter (obtained from cow’s milk). Historical records for hair care practices validate applying these oils for hair softening, detangling, and styling treatments. Moreover, scalp massage also employs certain oils.

Modern hair care technologies also utilize the benefits of natural oils either used directly or in the emulsion system with reduced particle size for oil droplets. If we randomly review the ingredients list of 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 highlights their importance and efficacy for hair care. Olive, Coconut, and Shea butter have been used for ages for skin and hair care. Most consumers have positive reviews about using oil for hair; however, not everyone is satisfied. Some consumers do not like using oils or butter on their hair, as they may leave the hair feeling heavy and greasy. In this article, we review the science of oils & butter, their characteristic properties, and how to choose the right oil for a particular hair type.


What are Oils & Butter?

Oils and butter are esters of long-chain fatty acids known as triglycerides. Here, 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.

Figure 1: A typical structure of saturated fatty acid triglyceride. Three carbon chains bonded to one glycerin unit.

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 keep 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.

Mechanism of Oil Interaction with Hair Proteins

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 at 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. Moreover, sebum is an oily material that is secreted by the sebaceous glands. 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, their viscosity, and density.

Composition of Popular Oils & Butter

There are a variety of natural oils and butters 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 and their behavior when applied to the hair or skin.

The above two charts demonstrate 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. Moreover, 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.

Oil Penetration or Surface Coating

The above (chart) fatty acid composition also defines their penetration potential into the hair fiber. Hair fibers contain tiny pores that offer openings for the conditioning actives to penetrate deep into the hair cortex’s center. This penetration depends upon the pore size and size of the active molecule. The larger the carbon chain, the bigger the molecular size and 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 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 Oil/Butter for Your Hair

Choosing the right oil or butter for your hair type is essential. Important: You have to consider your hair shaft diameter, porosity level, and natural sebum secretion. These factors influence the results, and an incorrect choice may lead to undesired, greasy, dull hair without shine.

However, an undesired result does not mean that all oils or butter are bad for you and that you should not use any oil or butter at all. It may be possible to use the incorrect oil at the wrong time or use a not-recommended method. It is all about choosing the right oil/butter for your hair. A careful examination of your hair type and chemical composition of oil/butter can easily guide us in choosing the right oil for your hair.

Consumers have different types of hair; let’s review how to choose an oil for them. First, let’s define 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 having higher unsaturated fatty content. Olive, argan, grape seed or sunflower are an excellent choice. Please use it in a 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 is excellent for this hair type.

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 Hair

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 small (keyword) quantities to avoid heaviness. Massaging a few drops of sunflower, olive, or jojoba oil should be enough. Applying hair butters may not work and may make your hair greasy. We recommended you use butter in an emulsion system (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 while easing combing. 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 grape seed are thin oils and are highly recommended.

How to Avoid or Control Oil Build-up

Oils and butter may also 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 oil/butter. Apply in small portions, massaging them thoroughly using your fingers.
  • Only apply when needed. Avoid excessive, repeated applications. Preferably clarify your hair before going to the next application.
  • Wash your hair with a clarifying shampoo to remove any build-up.


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 the 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/butter. There is always one for your hair that would provide the right level of conditioning and hair protection. A failure with one particular oil does not mean all others would do the same.

Remember, let your hair be your guide.


1. Schueller, R.; Romanowski, P., Conditioning Agents for Hair and Skin. Taylor & Francis: 1999.

2. Fregonesi, A.; Scanavez, C.; Santos, L.; de Oliveira, A.; Roesler, R.; Escudeiro, C.; Moncayo, P.; de Sanctis, D.; Gesztesi, J. L., Brazilian oils and butters: The effect of different fatty acid chain composition on human hair physiochemical properties. J. Cosmet. Sci. 2009, 60 (2), 273-280.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005

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