Coconut oil is an extremely versatile health and beauty product.
People use it for all sorts of things, from cooking and cleaning to moisturizing their skin and removing their makeup.
Others often use coconut oil to help improve the health and condition of their hair.
This article explores the pros and cons of using coconut oil on your hair.
Daily grooming practices like washing, brushing and styling can cause damage to your hair and leave it looking frizzy, broken and dry.
To understand why this happens, you need to know more about your hair's structure. Your hair is made up of three layers:
- The medulla: This is the soft, central part of the hair shaft. Interestingly, thick hair contains large amounts of medulla, while fine hair has almost none.
- The cortex: This is the thickest layer of your hair. It contains lots of fibrous proteins and the pigment that gives your hair its color.
- The cuticle: The cuticle is the tough, protective outer layer of your hair.
Bottom Line: Washing, brushing, coloring and styling your hair can damage its structure, leaving it more prone to breakage.
Coconut oil is often said to be the best oil to use on your hair to reduce protein loss and keep it looking healthy.
Given the current popularity of coconut oil, this would be easy to dismiss as a trend.
However, there is some evidence behind this claim.
One study examined the effects of applying coconut, sunflower or mineral oil to hair before or after washing (4).
To see which oil was best for protecting hair health, the researchers measured the amount of protein the hair lost after each of these treatments.
They found that coconut oil was better at preventing protein loss than both the mineral and sunflower oils when applied either before or after the hair was washed.
In fact, coconut oil came out on top in all of their studies and reduced protein loss in hair that was undamaged, bleached, chemically treated and UV exposed.
On the other hand, both the mineral and sunflower oils did not have this effect and weren't found to be effective at reducing protein loss from hair.
It's thought that coconut oil's chemical structure is behind its superior ability to protect hair (5).
Coconut oil is predominantly made up of a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid. This gives coconut oil a long, straight structure, which is more easily absorbed deep into the hair shaft.
Sunflower oil contains mostly linoleic acid, which has a much bulkier structure, so it's not as easily absorbed into the hair.
This means that oils like mineral oil and sunflower oil can coat the hair, but they aren't absorbed as well into the hair shaft (6).
Bottom Line: When applied to hair before washing, coconut oil has been shown to reduce protein loss more than sunflower and mineral oils.
There are a few ways you can apply oil to your hair to help protect it from damage.
First, applying oil to your hair before it's washed can help reduce the amount of damage it sustains during washing and while it's wet.
Interestingly, hair is most vulnerable to damage when it's wet. This is because of subtle, structural changes that occur when it absorbs water.
When you wet your hair, the thick, central cortex soaks up the water and swells, causing a structural change in the cuticle.
The hair cuticle is actually made up of flat, overlapping scales that are attached towards the root end of your hair and point towards the tip.
When the cortex of your hair absorbs water and swells up, these scales are pushed outward so they stick up. This makes wet hair much easier to damage, especially when brushing or styling.
Applying oil to your hair before you wash it can reduce the amount of water absorbed by the hair shaft and the degree to which the cuticle scales "stick up." This makes it less prone to damage while it's wet.
Second, coating your hair in oil after you wash it helps make it softer and smoother. This reduces the amount of friction caused by styling, making your hair less likely to snag and break (5).
Bottom Line: Your hair is most vulnerable to damage when it's wet. Applying oil to your hair both before and after you wash it helps protect it from damage.
Lots of people want to grow long, sleek and shiny hair.
However, day-to-day wear and tear on your hair caused by styling, grooming, the weather and pollutants can damage it.
This can make growing longer hair difficult, as your hair can become more worn and tired the longer it gets.
Coconut oil could help you grow your hair longer by:
- Moisturizing your hair and reducing breakage
- Protecting your hair from protein loss and damage when wet
- Protecting your hair from environmental damage like wind, sun and smoke
Bottom Line: Coconut oil reduces damage to your hair caused by day-to-day wear and tear. Using coconut oil in your hair care routine could help you grow longer, healthier hair.
Coconut oil may also have other benefits for your hair. However, many of them haven't been examined in properly controlled studies.
Possible benefits include:
- Lice prevention: One small study found that when combined with anise in a spray, coconut oil was 40% more effective at treating head lice than the chemical permethrin (7).
- Sun protection: UV filters can help protect your hair from sun damage. Some studies have found coconut oil to have a sun protection factor of 8, so putting it on your hair could be useful (8, 9, 10).
- Dandruff treatment: Dandruff can be caused by an overgrowth of fungus or yeast on the scalp. While no studies have examined coconut oil specifically, it has antimicrobial properties and could be useful for treating dandruff (11, 12).
- Hair loss prevention: Excessive grooming can damage the hair shaft, which in extreme circumstances can cause hair loss. Coconut oil can help keep your hair in good condition and prevent this.
Bottom Line: Coconut oil could help get rid of lice, protect your hair from the sun and reduce dandruff, but more studies are needed.
Coconut oil is generally considered safe to apply to your skin and hair (14).
However, using too much could cause a buildup of oil on your hair and scalp.
This could make your hair greasy and dull, especially if you have very fine hair.
To avoid this, make sure you start with only a small amount and begin by rubbing the coconut oil through your hair, from the midsection to the ends. People with very fine hair may want to avoid putting coconut oil on their scalp altogether.
Furthermore, while it's normal to lose about 50–100 hairs a day, many people also report losing lots of hair when they use coconut oil.
But coconut oil is not usually the culprit. Simply applying the oil allows hair that has already detached from your scalp to fall away.
Bottom Line: Using too much coconut oil can make your hair greasy. It usually doesn't cause hair loss, but it can cause previously detached hair to fall away from your scalp more easily.
Here are a few ways to use coconut oil to help improve the health of your hair.
- As a conditioner: Shampoo your hair as normal and then comb coconut oil through your hair, from the midsection to the ends.
- As a post-wash detangler: After shampooing and conditioning your hair, rub a little coconut oil through your hair to protect it while you brush it.
- As a hair mask: Rub coconut oil through your hair and let it sit for a few hours (or even overnight) before washing it out.
- As a pre-wash hair protector: Rub coconut oil through your hair before you wash it.
- As a scalp treatment: Before bed, massage a small amount of coconut oil into your scalp. Leave it overnight and wash it off with shampoo in the morning.
The amount of coconut oil you'll need will depend on your hair length and type. Most people use just enough to cover the midsection to the ends of their hair to avoid their hair getting greasy.
The best approach is to start with the smallest amount you think you will need and gradually increase from there.
If you have short or very fine hair, you may need as little as one teaspoon. However, people with long, thick hair may want to use as much as two tablespoons.
There are also many different types of coconut oil to choose from. Some people prefer to choose a virgin (unrefined) coconut oil, as they also use it in their diet.
However, there aren't any specific studies on whether one type of coconut oil is better for your hair than another. Additionally, both unrefined and refined coconut oil have the same moisturizing properties.
Bottom Line: Coconut oil can be used as a conditioner, hair mask or scalp treatment to give you shiny, healthy hair.
Coconut oil is an excellent moisturizing product for your hair.
It can be used both before and after you wash your hair to help prevent damage and keep your hair looking shiny and healthy.