What Are Coconut Oil's Hair Benefits + How To Apply It
It's one of the most beloved natural remedies around: Coconut oil is said to turn dull strands lustrous, whiten teeth, hydrate dry skin, and a whole breadth of other benefits. But here, we're going to focus just on hair—and there's a lot to talk about. At least anecdotally, coconut oil as a hair product has been hailed as the ultimate all-in-one salve for ages. Even today, I've hardly met a woman who hasn't, at the very least, tried some DIY mask they found on Instagram.
But with trending topics, comes a lot of misinformation. So we dived into the research to find out what's real.
What are coconut oil's hair benefits?
Coconut oil is made up of fatty acids (triglyceride of lauric acid is the main one) and vitamin E (so it has a ton of oil-soluble antioxidants). At room temperature it's a solid, but by warming it up in your palms, it melts into a soft, silky liquid, at which point you can run it through your strands.
What is so unique about coconut oil, more so than other options, is that research can back up a lot of the claims (and a few it can't, but more on that in a second). For example, unlike a lot of oils that sit on top of the strand and simply coat the surface, coconut oils' low molecular weight has the ability to penetrate the shaft, according to one study.
Another massive benefit: Coconut oil, according to another study1, can actually prevent hair damage when used as a pre-wash and post-wash grooming product. And it does so on a molecular level: Triglyceride of lauric acid has a high affinity for hair proteins, so when it penetrates the hair, it helps the strand hold on to them. (Even other oils that are made up of triglyceride of lauric acid, like sunflower seed oil, can't make these claims.)
As an aside to why this is such a big deal: Hair is primarily made up of proteins, and in order to be strong and healthy, it needs to keep those proteins intact. Damage—be it from heat, sun, or other environmental aggressors—will cause hair to lose these and other nutrients. If you look at a single strand of hair under a microscope (check out this study2), you'd see that damaged hair literally has gaps and dents in it—that's the protein loss.
On a more basic level, too, coconut oil helps prevent physical hair damage. (Again, according to a study.3) When applied before brushing, before it's absorbed, the oil will act as a physical barrier between strands, reducing friction and helping in the detangling process.
It can also slow signs of aging—yes, just like skin, hair can age as well—because of the high antioxidant content. According to research4, oxidative stress accelerates hair aging, and applying antioxidants can temper this by neutralizing free radicals.
Cosmetically, too, the oil can help reduce frizz. Frizz is caused by raised cuticles on the hair shaft, which separates individual hairs. (That's why anti-frizz products seal the cuticle flat). So naturally, your hair can have raised cuticles. You can also make your hair more frizz-prone with damage (with bleaching, for example), because you are chemically forcing the cuticle up and open. Finally, frizz can come from humidity and moisture: When there is water in the air, the cuticle naturally opens up, absorbing the water, and the hair shaft swells. Well, one study showed5 that when coconut oil was applied to hair before being put under vapor, it slowed the water diffusion.
But don't worry, coconut oil won't suffocate your strands by not allowing water in. As hairstylist Gabrielle Corney once noted to us, oils should not be confused with conditioners. You actually need water to moisturize hair, and oil does not provide that: It can only seal in water. However, coconut oil actually has moisture content: Meaning, when it's absorbed, it can actually provide hydration.
But does it help with hair growth? One of the most common things you'll see on a Google search is people swearing that using it every day made their hair grow. But there are no credible studies that can prove this. What is likely happening is that because the oil is preventing damage, the hair is able to grow longer without breakage, thus appearing as if it is growing faster.
Does it fix split ends? Nothing can fix split ends. All you can do is trim them off. However, oils and emollients help improve the look of damaged ends by increasing shine, making them look healthier. However, as noted above, this oil can actually prevent future damage—so if you use it regularly, you'll likely see fewer split ends forming.
What hair types is it best for?
Often, hair products are marketed toward "types," meaning straight, wavy, kinky, and coily. However, that's the wrong way to look at coconut oil. "Coconut oil isn't about hair type as it is about texture," says hairstylist Clay Neilson. "The question you should be asking yourself is, 'Is my hair dry and coarse or damaged?' If yes, then coconut oil is great for you."
And while those with curly to kinky hair tend to have coarser textures, it's not always the case: You can have straight hair that's dry, and you can have curly hair that's fine and limp. In the former case, you'll want to condition it with oils, but in the latter, it might actually weigh your curl pattern down.
Finally, coconut oil is one that bleached hair can benefit from: Not only because it helps with damage but because it has a lower risk of turning the color brassy. As colorist Christine Thompson has noted to us before, any hair product with a tint to it has the potential to alter bleached hair overtime. As coconut oil goes on clear, you won't have that issue.
How, and how often, should you be applying it?
Application methods, according to Neilson, should also depend on your need. They can range from quick fixes to daily hydration to intense treatments. So before you go and do one of those Instagram coconut oil "hacks," take a moment and think about what your hair goals are. If you just need to protect dry ends, an overnight oil mask might be too much for you. Or if you have severely dry hair, something like a pre-shampoo treatment might not be enough.
At the lightest end of the spectrum, you can use coconut oil as a styling tool on an as-need basis. For example, if after a blowout you need to tame frizz at the ends, use a dime-size spill and pull it through the last quarter of your hair shaft. Or if you plan to wear it up, in a sleek bun, for example, wet your fingers with it and lay down fly-aways at the hairline.
For those who just need moisture maintenance, try a pre-shampoo treatment once a week or every other week. On dry hair, coat the strands—how much you use will depend on how much hair you have—about 30 minutes before you get in the shower. (You need to give hair time to absorb the oil.) Then wash it out with a gentle, sulfate-free shampoo. Or if you are on the coarser end, and your hair really needs the oils, just rinse with water, which will leave some residual oil on the strand.
Of course, those with kinky, coily hair can use it regularly simply by applying it to the strands and letting it soak in. "If you have that texture that really needs it, you can absolutely use coconut oil every day, which isn't the case with most oils," says Neilson.
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Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.