Coconut oil, castor oil, olive oil — these days it seems like practically every cooking oil under the sun is being promoted as the latest and best natural hair care. So how are you to know which claims are legit and which are totally unfounded?
The answer: a little research goes a long way… and we’ve done that research. Turns out, coconut oil is the real deal — it can help remove frizz, tame flyaways, and style your hair, and its healing benefits for your scalp are backed by scientists and hair care experts alike.
How does coconut oil benefit your scalp?
Do you find yourself constantly brushing white flakes off your shoulders, hoping that no one will notice? Dry, flaky scalps cost Americans approximately $300 million every year — but the cheapest scalp moisturizer is likely sitting in your pantry. Coconut oil helps with flakiness by deep conditioning the dry skin on your scalp.
It’s been used to promote scalp health in African and Indian cultures for centuries, and science is just now catching up to explain why the cooking staple works so well on our heads. One possible connection has to do with the scalp microbiome, the ecosystem of bacteria that live on and among your hair follicles. It might sound gross, but the scalp microbiome is super critical for maintaining scalp health and hair growth. When your scalp microbiome is unbalanced by things like harsh hair treatments or a poor diet, it can make you more susceptible to unpleasant conditions like flakiness, dry hair, and chronic dry scalp.
A 2021 study for Scientific Reports demonstrated that topical application of hydrating coconut oil helped promote a balanced scalp microbiome among 70 individuals suffering from a buildup of flakiness. Though scientists are still uncertain about why coconut oil is so beneficial to the bacteria in your scalp, there’s no question that it is.
For total scalp care, unrefined or extra virgin coconut oil is best. That’s because refined coconut oil is processed to remove impurities — important for cooking but not so great for those of us looking to lather the full-fat version on our dry or itchy scalps. So look out for “unrefined,” “virgin,” or “unprocessed” labels when shopping for hair care coconut oil.
Can coconut oil strengthen your hair?
When we think of protein, we usually think about incorporating it into our diet for wellness — salmon, Greek yogurt, you know the drill. But did you know that your hair is actually made up of protein? It’s true. The majority of your hair cuticle is made up of a protein called keratin, and maintaining this protein is key to maintaining the softness of healthy hair. Keratin is responsible for the shape and structure of your strands. If you aren’t getting enough protein, limp and lackluster will be the result.
This is where coconut oil comes in. Given that protein loss is linked to aging, the fact that coconut oil is able to penetrate the hair shaft and provide deep nourishment, rather than just sitting on top of your hair, is especially important. This happens because coconut oil is a triglyceride made up of lauric acid and other fatty acids — in other words, the type of fat we hate to see in our diet (but love to see on our hair). These types of fatty acids have a high affinity for hair protein and can easily absorb into the hair follicle, where they help support hair texture and thickness. A 2015 scientific review found that coconut oil was able to support hair’s natural protein when used as a prewash or post-wash product.
To reap the protein-protecting benefits of coconut oil, simply apply it as a DIY hair mask once a week, right before you shampoo. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so warm up a tablespoon in the microwave for a few seconds before applying it to your hair. Evenly distribute the oil through your hair the way you would any other hair product, and then let it sit for five to 10 minutes before washing it out.
How does coconut oil protect your hair?
Pure coconut oil might just be the Mother Teresa of hair care products — it just keeps on giving. In addition to protecting your scalp and natural proteins, this natural oil has also been shown to support hair strength and integrity, leaving you with thick and healthy-looking hair.
Part of the reason for this has to do with the above mentioned coconut oil qualities — being easily absorbed into the hair follicle and supporting protein both contribute to a stronger and more hydrated mane. But the real key to coconut oil’s ability to reduce damage and breakage has to do with how it seals moisture into the hair follicle. Each time your hair gets wet, the hair follicles swell up with moisture and deswell as they dry. Over time, this process can cause hygral fatigue, a type of damage to your hair that can result in dryness, split ends, and breakage.
Because coconut oil is so good at penetrating the cuticle, it acts as a seal that moisturizes the hair cuticle from the inside out while simultaneously supporting your hair’s strength when it gets wet. In other words, coconut oil is the real deal — and your first-class ticket to thick and healthy-looking hair.
Who should use coconut oil?
We could go on for days about the benefits of coconut oil for your head and scalp, but unfortunately, using a large amount of coconut oil may not be for everybody. According to some hair care experts, those of us with brittle or coarse hair might have to strike the coconut oil off our shopping lists.
Dry and brittle hair is often caused by too much protein — and adding on coconut oil could exacerbate the problem. On the other hand, fine, textured, and curly hair will eagerly soak up the benefits coconut oil has to offer. It all depends on what hair type you have and how readily it accepts moisture.
If you aren’t sure what hair type you have, you can test-run a coconut oil scalp treatment or hair mask. To do this, heat up some coconut oil in the microwave and work it through your strands or your scalp. Leave it on for five to ten minutes, preferably under a shower cap. Shampoo and rinse out the mask in the shower, and pay attention to how your hair feels afterward — does it feel soft and hydrated? Or does it seem drier and brittle? This will tell you whether coconut oil should be a regular staple in your hair care routine — or whether it’s best to leave it on that pantry shelf.
The Bottom Line
Unlike the benefits touted by fans of other hair care products gleaned from the pantry shelf, the benefits of coconut oil are backed by science — which is exactly what we want to see before we lather a new product all over our heads. Not too bad, considering your average coconut oil hair mask costs $10.