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Hair Oils — Notably Coconut Oil — May Cause Brittleness & Damage

Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director. Previously she worked at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.
Image by Lumina / Stocksy
October 18, 2020

Don't you hate it when an otherwise good-for-you beauty product backfires? You find something you just love, you use it up, and instead of making your hair or skin better, you start seeing some unintended consequences. At this point, you may be tempted to write the product off for good. Before you do, take a look at how you're using it—often beauty products backfire because you're not fully following instructions.

This is the case for some hair oils, most notably coconut. The beloved oil—and let's say upfront coconut oil is beloved for good reasons—may backfire if you don't use it properly, as well as using too much of it. We know this is a bummer to hear, especially since the oil is so delightful to use. Allow us to explain. 

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How coconut oil can make your hair more brittle if you overdo it. 

Oils, any oils, are occlusive by nature. Occlusives essentially act as a barrier, wrapping around skin or hair ideally keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. This is why you top your water-based toners and lotions with an oil—you are sealing in the hydration and nutrients underneath. This is a good thing.

It becomes a problem, however, when said oil doesn't have any moisture to lock in—and then may be actively keeping water out. This brings us back to usage: Hair oils should be layered over water (be it on damp hair or from a water-based spray or cream), so they have conditioning agents to seal in; that's the first issue. The second is that using too much hair oil may be harder to wash off in the shower (especially if you opt for gentle, sulfate-free shampoos or co-washes). So then, because you're not fully washing off the product, water from your shower is repelled, unable to soak in, leaving your hair dry, dehydrated, and brittle. 

(An addendum to this: For those with very high-porosity hair, the above scenario may work in your favor, as your strands tend to absorb too much water—causing swelling and breakage. But for those with average to low-porosity hair, oil buildup will lead to brittleness.)

So why do I single out coconut oil here? Because coconut oil is the one most likely culprit. There are a few reasons for this. The first, "Coconut oil tends to solidify some," says board-certified dermatologist Raechele Cochran Gathers, M.D. (You know how it's often solid at room temperature? Yeah, sort of like that). As it dries into a solid, it can cause strands to feel stiffer and more coarse—leading to breakage.

But coconut oil also is high in lauric acid, which naturally attracts and binds with hair proteins. This will cause protein buildup, leading to less elasticity and flexibility of hair—or common symptoms of brittleness. 

The takeaway. 

Hair has so many variables, doesn't it? This is why not all products or ingredients work well across the board—almost no hair care advice is universal. So, if you are finding that your oil, notably coconut oil, is making your hair more brittle, instead of softening up the strands, take it as an indication that you're likely overdoing, not rinsing it out enough, or that perhaps said oil is just not suitable for you. If this isn't an issue? Go on about your business, coconut oiled strands and all. 

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Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director at mindbodygreen. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She has worked at many top publications and brands including 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 and updates in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as travel, financial wellness, and parenting. She has reported on the intricacies of product formulations, the diversification of the beauty industry, and and in-depth look on how to treat acne from the inside, out (after a decade-long struggle with the skin condition herself). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.