The cult of coconut oil is going strong, and while a lot of the uses are pretty BS (pulling out toxins, for example), it is actually better for your hair than other oils! Here’s why, and how to best use it…
What Happens When Your Hair Gets Wet
First, we have to take a look at what happens when you wash your hair, at a microscopic level.
The outer layer of your hair is called the cuticle. It’s made up of rigid overlapping scales, full of keratin, a tough protein that also makes up a large proportion of your nails. The cuticle acts like a shield around the spongy interior of the hair, the cortex. The cortex and cuticle are all stuck together by the cell membrane complex.
When hair gets wet, the cell membrane complex and the inner cuticle (endocuticle) soak up water and swell up, but the rigid outer layer doesn’t. This makes the scales stick up, and they get snagged and snap off when strands rub against each other or when you run a comb through it. This damage to the cuticle leads to split ends and breakage.
How Can Oil Help?
There are 2 key ways that oiling hair can help. When oil is applied on hair after washing and before combing, it lubricates the hair so there’s less friction, leading to less snagging.
More powerfully though, adding oil to hair before washing, the oil coats the hair in a protective layer. Since oil is water-repellent, less water will get inside the hair, so there’s a lot less swelling. The cuticle scales stick up less, so less damage occurs.
Why Is Coconut Oil the Best Oil for Hair?
Coconut oil is particularly good because its structure means it can penetrate the hair shaft more than most other oils, leading to a stronger water-repellent effect. Here are the average structures of mineral oil, coconut oil and sunflower oil (all three are actually complex mixtures):
Coconut oil performs better than both sunflower oil and mineral oil in preventing damage to wet hair.
Compared to sunflower oil, coconut oil molecules are smaller. Coconut oil has shorter fatty acid chains – about 50% lauric acid, which is 12 carbons long, and 20% myristic acid, which is 14 carbons long – while sunflower oil is 60% linoleic acid and 30% oleic acid, which are both 18 carbons long. Additionally, coconut oil contains mostly linear saturated fatty acids while sunflower oil is mostly bent unsaturated fatty acids, which means that coconut oil molecules are more compact as well. This means it’s easier for coconut oil to pass into the cell membrane complex, which boosts its ability to form a water-blocking layer.
Mineral oil molecules contain around 20 carbons, so they’re actually substantially smaller than coconut oil molecules which contain around 40 carbons. It’s the oxygen atoms in the coconut oil this time which makes it work better for hair – the oxygen atoms allow the coconut oil to interact with hair proteins via hydrogen bonding, and be sucked into the inner part of the hair.
How to Use Coconut Oil to Reduce Hair Damage
So here’s how you should be using coconut oil in your routine:
1. 5-10 minutes before washing, rub coconut oil into your hair (if it’s solid, warm it up in your hands first)
2. Shampoo and and condition normally
3. If you want, you can also rub some oil into your hair after washing
Conveniently, this also means that you won’t have to go around with greasy hair – the shampooing will remove a lot of the applied oil anyway! If you don’t have a favourite brand of coconut oil yet, I love the strong coconut smell of Nutiva, but any old coconut oil will do! And if you’re interested in more uses for coconut oil, this article has a whole list of health benefits.
AS Rele & RB Mohile, Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage, J Cosmet Sci 2003, 54, 175–192.
K Keis, D Persaud, YK Kamath & AS Rele, Investigation of penetration abilities of various oils into human hair fibers, J Cosmet Sci 2005, 56, 283–295.
SB Ruetsch, , YK Kamath, AS Rele & RB Mohile, Secondary ion mass spectrometric investigation of penetration of coconut and mineral oils into human hair fibers: relevance to hair damage. J Cosmet Sci 2001, 52, 169–184.
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43 thoughts on “Why Coconut Oil Is the Best Hair Oil (and How to Use It)”
I’m not sure if I’m understanding this correctly…Applying pure oil when the hair is wet? :-S
Applying it while the hair is dry, before you wash it is best!
I’m always scared to use oils in my hair as it’s so oily to begin with, but I think I need to give coconut oil a go – maybe on a day when I don’t have to leave the house! Thanks for another fab, informative post 🙂
Me too – I’m only applying it to the ends though!
Only about a teaspoon is needed for a whole head of hair. If you let it liquefy in your palm first, it goes a very long way. As stated in the above article, the molecules are smaller in coconut oil, so more of it can go into the hair shaft, meaning less is lying on top of the hair, and subsequently the hair does not appear as “oily.”
Well, I just tried this last night, and I am so happy with my hair today! It took a lot less time to detangle while I washed it, and it’s really soft and shiny today! Thanks so much for the scientific explanation too, as always… I never try anything unless it’s backed up with evidence, and I love the way you break the information down while still keeping it accurate. Thanks so much, Michelle! 🙂
Nice article. It’s worth noting that if people do apply coconut oil to their hair prior to shampooing they should expect that their shampoo will not foam as well. The extra oil will severely depress the foam. It will not affect the cleansing properties but users might think their hair doesn’t feel as clean and may need to wash twice.
But coconut oil is soooo comedogenic! Not ideal for most blemish prone people. Sunflower or safflower would be a better choice based on comodogenity. I know it doesn’t melt like like coconut oil. Maybe fractionated coconut.
Sunflower oil didn’t work as well as coconut oil in these studies, and I would expect that safflower oil wouldn’t be as effective as well since it has a large amount of unsaturated fatty acids.
The high melting point of coconut oil actually isn’t directly related to comedogenicity! I think the easiest thing to do it just to keep your hair off your face while it’s soaking in coconut oil…
If I do this regularly my hair starts to brake, any idea why? I save it for special occasions because results are beautiful, but I scared I’ll jeopardise my hair severely by doing this to often.
Great post! I hope everyone would give this a try for it really works so well on hair and even on skin. I have been using this on my hair for months and I really love the results.
I love coconut oil for my hair. Your visuals have helped me understand why!
Curious if you know/ could speculate on the effect leaving coconut oil on damp hair. I’ve always added it after washing (water or conditioner only) and wrapping it up (to dry it ). Then don’t add any more when it’s fully dry. Maybe I should try adding more once it’s dried.
I use coconut oil on my hair at least once a week, I melt it, apply it all over the ends, wrap it up and go to sleep..then shampoo in the morning! It saves time then as you don’t need to condition it too. I have noticed much improvement in the look and strength of my hair, after bleaching it for years it had become quite damaged… but now I get compliments all the time 🙂
Great blog post – thank you!
Coconut is a staple in my hair care routine. It is the only hair oil I use. I use it every day without fail and deep condition once a week with it too, under a warm hooded dryer for about 20 minutes. The result? Stronger hair.
I love using coconut oil on the ends of my hair every night before bed, it really helps minimize breakage and frizziness! I’ll have to try applying it before I shampoo as well!
Wonderful info. Even though I have extremely oily and sensitive skin, I used to use coconut oil as a mascara and eyeliner remover. I noticed that when I used it every night, my eyelashes started to grow more. I stopped using it, and noticed that my lashes have gone back to being skimpy. How long before washing your hair do you recommend keeping the coconut oil on?
About 5 minutes – doesn’t have to be very long at all!
Hi, just wondering about the time needed for it to penetrate the hair shaft. I was listening to the Beauty Brains podcast and they mentioned it would not penetrate unless on the hair for many hours first as a sort of mask. What sources say 5 min is enough? Is it just based on personal experience?
There’s a study from 2012 that found that coconut oil penetrated quite significantly within 1 hour, and less than double of that after 6 hours – that combined with reviews from others and personal experience 😉 Most studies were done for really long periods (14-48 h), but the 2012 study suggests that a large amount of the uptake is within the first hour.
If this is how science was taught when I was at school, I would have got better grades! Thanks for your post. Everyone says how great coconut oil is but no one really explains why.
My daughter uses it on her curly hair all the time, I never have enough for cooking!
Thanks for your comment! It gave me the warm fuzzies inside 🙂
Hello Michelle! As usual, great and useful post.
I have one question, which is similar to the one about rosehip oil: what kind of coconut oil do you need for this purpose (to apply to the hair prior to washing)?
As I’m sure you know, coconut oil ranges from cheap tubs/bottles (I believe it’s also used for cooking) to pretty pricey super-raw/organic/extra virgin editions.
Which ones are ok to use on your hair – and why? What is the ‘secret ingredient’/catch in the preparation?
The secret ingredient is just the triglycerides – which make up 99.99% of the coconut oil (or thereabouts)! So pretty much any coconut oil that’s oil will work.
Facinating and easy to absorb the information – a gift.
One question: what do you think of coconut shampoo bars? If they are superfatted would they leave some coconut oil on the hair?
They would – but you’d lose the waterproofing benefit of using the oil first (unless you’re applying the shampoo to dry hair, but from my understanding it wouldn’t work very well that way). I don’t think the shampoo bars, if they’re made via saponification, would be very good for hair – high (alkaline) pH lifts the cuticle and exposes it to more damage!
I really like the idea of shampoo bars but can’t get past the pH issue other than using it and doing a ACV rinse. Do you think chemically this would be a sound way to go so as not to damage hair?
I am now trying the soapnuts as they are said to be more acidic.
So… reading the papers you cited and another haircare science blog (linked below), it appears that mineral oil isn’t just less effective in penetrating the cuticle than coconut oil–apparently it can’t penetrate the hair shaft at all! Initially I was shocked because (a) when an oil is said to have “no penetration” that implies to me that the molecules never enter the spaces between the hair cuticles and (b) the molecules in mineral oil are so small relative to those in coconut oil that I had trouble imagining why mineral oil would be unable to fit into those spaces. On a second read though, it sounds like the issue with mineral oil might be that even if it’s small enough to fit between those spaces, it won’t stay there for long because of the lack of hydrogen bonding. Is that correct? Or is it, like I first assumed, unable to get between the cuticles in the first place?
It’s definitely small enough to get into the hair shaft! It doesn’t really go in though because it’s too non-polar – instead of being “sucked in” to the cortex, it’s probably slightly repelled by the polar regions on the hair proteins.
Does it matter if the coconut oil is unrefined or not?
Nope! Both will work – it’s the main component of coconut oil that does the work (like 99% of the oil) so it’ll be there in any coconut oil you find 🙂
cool post 🙂
Great post. It’s well-written and informative.
Coconut oil is great for hair.
It adds luster and vitality to dull and lifeless hair.
Wow….this is really a great tip. I just love it. Thanks a lot for sharing such tip.
this i really informative!
Quick question – is this still the best oil to use, and if so how often would you recommend using it?
Any other great hair care products you’d recommend for a fellow lazy hair person?
Yep, coconut is still awesome! I’ve also been using a lot of silicones but whether that works depends on your hair 🙂
Hi there! What about using coconut oil with olaplex?
I was thinking of putting coconut oil in my hair and then adding a layer of olaplex for a while before washing my hair, but I wondering if coconut oil would prevent the olaplex from doing its thing. My thought process was that since coconut oil is water repellent and causes the cuticle to not lift up as much as water, then maybe the olaplex couldn’t do the crazy magic it does to hair.
Would love to know what you think! 🙂
I use coconut oil for so many things, but never thought about using it for my hair. I’m generally skeptical when it comes to oil in my hair… I don’t know. Just the idea of putting oil in my hair seems weird to me.. Can’t quite get over the fact, that adding “grease” to the hair is actually good for it! 😉
Might have to give it a try and let go of my prejudice after reading your article though. Thank you!
I already knew that coconut oil is the best hair oil, but I did not know the facts behind it. This blog is really very helpful. This will surely help me to reduce hair fall.
Coconut oil actually makes my hair dry and matted and awful. Any idea why?
Probably one of the most useful and informative blog posts Ive come across in a while!
Is 5-10 min enough? What is the total amount of time it takes for oil to get completely absorbed by the hair for ultimate results?
I’m sure there’s a threshold after which it would just be torture sitting around with oil in your hair.
Always knew coconut oil to be useful for a lot of things, but have never tried it on my hair before. Looking forward to try it this time. Thanks!