ICYMI, coconut oil has been riding on its reputation as an all-star for the last several years. It’s a healthy cooking fat, it can whiten your teeth, and when it comes to your hair, people swear by its natural ability to make it shiny and frizz-free.
But are the coconut oil benefits for hair legit?
While there hasn't been much research into the topic, one study back from 2003 published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science noted that applying coconut oil to your hair before or after washing could help prevent damage and strengthen hair. The researchers found coconut oil worked by protecting hair’s natural proteins, which are depleted over time by things like air pollution and heat styling.
“Coconut oil was the only oil [compared to mineral and sunflower oil] found to reduce the protein loss remarkably for both undamaged and damaged hair when used as a pre-wash and post-wash grooming product,” the researchers said. Why? “Coconut oil, being a triglyceride of lauric acid (principal fatty acid), has a high affinity for hair proteins and, because of its low molecular weight and straight linear chain, is able to penetrate inside the hair shaft," the study concluded.
So, yeah, that study seems to weigh in favor of coconut oil for hair, especially if it’s damaged and dry. But some hairstylists and dermatologists say you should think twice.
Here’s the lowdown on the tropical oil, including how to incorporate it into your hair routine (if at all) and whether or not it can help you grow healthier, longer strands.
Is coconut oil good for your hair?
Rub coconut oil onto your skin and it certainly looks softer and feels more moisturized, right? So, it only makes sense that the same would go for your hair. Well, while coconut oil is “somewhat” moisturizing, it's not necessarily the best option in the longterm, says Anna Jackson, a celebrity stylist at Chicago-based BOSS HAIR GROUP.
“The problem is the molecule is so big that it doesn’t get absorbed like products created specifically for hair,” she says. “Instead, it sits on top of the hair shaft and makes it shiny and soft — but just temporarily.” That means you’re just one hair wash away from losing any benefits the coconut oil might have had for your hair, Jackson says.
What about coconut oil for hair growth?
And when it comes to claims that coconut oil can help with hair regrowth, the proof just isn’t there, says Caren Campbell, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in San Francisco. If you're considering coconut oil to help grow your hair out, Dr. Campbell says you’re better off avoiding some of the everyday behaviors that may have caused hair breakage or hair thinning in the first place.
Some culprits? Using chemical relaxers (and other harsh products) on your hair, as well as overusing hot styling tools (like curling irons and hair dryers) can all contribute to damaged hair, Campbell says.
When it comes to hair growth specifically, you need to get to the root cause (no pun intended). “Making sure you don’t have an iron deficiency, thyroid issues, vitamin D, or zinc deficiencies is also important,” she says. “Your doctor can check these labs and treat with supplements or medications as needed.”
How should I use coconut oil for my hair?
Experts recommend rubbing coconut oil between your hands to tame flyaways or frizzies or for an occasional shine boost. But it's best not to overuse the stuff, since it can make hair limp and oily, says Gina Rivera, founder and president of Phenix Salons.
There's another reason you’ll want to think twice before slathering your head in straight-up coconut oil: It's comedogenic — meaning it can clog your pores and lead to “acne-like bumps and cysts in the scalp," Dr. Campbell says. She adds that coconut oil is also a potential allergen for some and could lead to itching and rashes.
Bottom line on the coconut oil benefits for hair? “Coconut oil is very natural and can have a wonderful effect on the skin,” Jackson says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much for the hair.”
What about coconut oil-based hair products?
All of that said, you've probably seen tons of products on the market that contain coconut oil, and there’s no reason (other than allergies) why you shouldn't give them a shot, especially since you'll find many other good-for-hair ingredients inside.
Here, a few popular ones you can scoop up for shinier, healthier hair.
This oil treatment is designed to penetrate the hair, which means it won’t just sit on top of strands and add superficial (aka temporary) shine. One reviewer said she wanted to give the treatment 10 stars, adding, “It smooths and shines my hair perfectly … lifetime supply to this girl, please!”
Raw, virgin coconut oil, shea butter, and argan oil work together in this nourishing treatment to strengthen, moisturize, and soften hair. One user called the treatment “amazing,” noting that her naturally fine hair became voluminous and soft after just one use of the product.
“It’s typical for a product to weigh my hair down and make it look flat within an hour of using it,” she wrote. “However, this Coco & Eve product has done the opposite.”
In addition to coconut oil, this shampoo contains honey, which works as a natural moisturizer to control frizz and add a boost of hydration to dry hair. Lemon and orange oils add a refreshing citrus scent. One user called the Quenching Coconut Curls Shampoo “heaven for my hair” and said it helps to tame her “thick, curly, frizzy, dry strands.”
Working together with other moisturizing ingredients like shea butter and argan oil, this whipped leave-in conditioner leaves hair shiny hair for (literal) days. “With other moisturizers, my hair feels dry and brittle a day later and I have to keep adding,” one reviewer wrote. “This held up for a whole week without me adding more product. I am very very impressed.”
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