Coconuts, like avocadoes and kale, have been recently touted as the new panacea for a pool of maladies. Unlike other fad fruits and veggies, coconut has widely used by-products – especially coconut milk and coconut oil. In the last couple of years, coconut oil has even gained a reputation as a hair growth agent. So how can you sort if the oil is a great old tyme beauty agent or just snake oil? Let’s get down to the facts.
- The use of coconut oil for hair treatment and conditioning has a long historical track record. The most prevalent use was and is in modern developing countries, such as India. In the subtropics, coconut is easily grown; couple that with the limited access to more processed products that we have in the developed world, using coconut oil was an example of great resourcefulness.
- Coconut is naturally high in fatty acids. It is surpassed only by canola and avocado. Not considered a good staple for regular consumption, the natural acids and fatty properties could be beneficial. In fact, it is these properties that some hair mask agents try to mimic.
- The natural acid in coconut oil will penetrate through oil build-up on the scalp. This penetrative quality, along with the antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities that acids have in general, is a good sign of maintaining cleanliness.
- Unprocessed oil contains contaminants which could carry health hazards, especially if you have sensitive skin. Plus, virgin coconut oil smells terrible, it is greasy, and can freeze at room temperature. Conclusion: Don’t use it raw.
- Oil lubricates. Why is that important for hair? Brushing – the massive abrasive damage that we do on a regular basis can be soothed and smoothed with oil.
- Oil protects. Oil wrap around the hair at the scalp and into the root, preserving proteins and retaining moisture. More proteins in the hair follicle makes a stronger hair shaft. Moisture in the shaft keeps it flexible and less prone to breakage.
- In a study from 2003, “coconut oil performed better as a pre-wash rather than a post-wash conditioner.” Why? The oil prevented friction, which kept the hair cuticle cells from swelling. Swollen cuticle cells in hair break when brushed or combed.
So, this all sounds like good news so far. What’s the catch?
- The results will vary by hair type. The previously-mentioned study was only conducted on hair from individuals of Indian descent. Those with coarser or drier hair may not need the extra protein that coconut oil traps. Thinner oils, like argan oil, would be a better fit.
- You cannot use too much of it. Just like with many other nature-based health and beauty “secrets”, usually the secret is to use it sparingly. If you cake it on, you will inevitably do more harm than good.
- It can interact with other products. Coconut oil has specific properties that when used with hair products that have a lot of chemicals could spell trouble. Just like when you start a new medication, you need to check how it can react with what you are already taken.
If you’re looking for a beauty boost of the natural variety, coconut oil may be a good fit for you. Just remember, with any new product – even natural – there are risks.
Rele, A.S. and R.B. Mohile. 2003. Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on the prevention of hair damage. Journal of Cosmetic Science. Vol. 54:175-192.