Considered safe enough to eat, coconut oil has also been used on the hair for centuries to hydrate and nourish, reduce split ends, and protect the hair from breakage.
But why, exactly, is this natural substance good for the hair? And how should coconut oil be used when it comes to hair application?
This article takes a closer look at coconut oil and its specific uses for the hair. We’ve gathered input from three experts on this topic, as well as other sources, to help you determine if using coconut oil on your hair is right for you.
Let’s begin by discussing the reasons why coconut oil is good for the hair, according to our experts. Then, we’ll discuss ways to use coconut as a hair mask and to treat split ends, as well as what to avoid.
Keep in mind that this article is not intended as medical advice or treatment. Rather, we want to provide you with as much information as possible, so you can make an educated decision whether or not coconut oil on your hair is right for you.
Why Is Coconut Oil Good for the Hair?
Coconut oil contains medium chain fatty acids, two of which are lauric acid and capric acid, explained Dr. Mojgan Sadeghi, a board certified physician who serves on the medical staff at Adventist Health Simi Valley.
“These are the two major acids that are in coconut oil, and what they do is they act like a sebum that our skin produces to hydrate and moisturize,” said Dr. Sadeghi, who also has a private practice in Southern California. “That’s why it’s so good for the hair because it puts those natural ingredients back in.”
Unrefined coconut oil boasts a combination of fatty acids which are powerful emollients, said Dr. Kally Papantoniou, a board certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic, laser and surgical dermatology in New York City, Queens and Eastern Long Island.
This combination is “great for maintaining shiny healthy locks by hydrating and protecting the hair cuticle, and also provides natural antifungal and antibacterial properties which can benefit hair,” Dr. Papantoniou noted.
Coconut oil is great for hair, agreed Dr. Annie Chiu, a board certified Dermatologist in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
She noted a study that examined the effects of coconut, sunflower or mineral oil on hair before or after washing, in which 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 both before or after the hair was washed,” Dr. Chiu said. “Coconut oil reduced protein loss in hair that was undamaged, bleached, chemically treated and UV exposed.”
Neither the mineral or sunflower had this effect, and they were not found to be effective at reducing protein loss from hair, Dr. Chiu added.
“This is because coconut oil is mostly made up of lauric acid,” Dr. Chiu said. “Lauric acid gives coconut oil a long and straight structure, which allows it to be more easily absorbed deep into the hair shaft. This makes it superior to other oils for the purpose of deep conditioning.”
Coconut oil can also be very protective against hair damage, according to Authority Nutrition, which noted a study that showed its effectiveness as sunscreen, blocking about 20% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of using coconut oil on the hair, let’s take a look at coconut oil versus over-the-counter conditioners.
Is Coconut Oil Better for the Hair Than Over-The-Counter Conditioners?
Not necessarily, according to Dr. Chiu.
“There are many great conditioners out there that provide moisture and that add protein to the hair shaft,” Dr. Chiu said. “People may prefer coconut oil because it is a cleaner choice with little to no added ingredients.”
Coconut oil is a great alternative or adjunct to the use of over the counter conditioners, Dr. Papantoniou noted.
However, “it may not be for everyone, especially those with already thin hair or oil prone hair,” she said. “And commercial conditioners may work better to detangle hair and soften the cuticle without weighing down hair.”
While some may believe that using coconut oil on the hair can promote re-growth, it actually doesn’t, according to our experts. The next section explains why.
Does Coconut Oil Promote Re-Growth of Hair?
Coconut oil does not promote re-growth, Dr. Chiu said, but it can help prevent hair loss and help hair grow longer by reducing breakage and protein loss, and protecting hair from environmental damage such as the sun and wind.
There is no evidence to show that coconut oil will re-grow hair, Dr. Papantoniou said, “but it can promote stronger healthier hair and scalps.”
Applying coconut oil to the hair doesn’t really help to get the hair back, Dr. Sadeghi agreed
“Coconut oil doesn’t make you grow hair follicles,” she said. “But for the hair, it thickens each hair follicle and helps give nourishment to the hair shaft.”
With so many different brands of coconut oil on the market these days, which one is best? The next section offers advice on what to select, according to our experts.
Do You Recommend Any Particular Brand of Coconut Oil?
While there is no particular brand that Dr. Chiu recommends, some people prefer unrefined coconut oil.
“There are no studies that confirm which type is better – both refined and unrefined coconut oils have that same moisturizing properties,” she noted.
The most important thing to look for is the label, Dr. Papantoniou advised.
“The label should state that the coconut oil is virgin, and un-refined,” she said.
Now that we’ve explored the benefits of coconut oil on the hair and other factors, let’s take a look at how to apply it based on your specific needs.
How to Condition the Hair with Coconut Oil
Generally, Dr. Chiu recommends applying coconut oil to your hair before washing to help reduce the amount of damage it sustains during washing, “since hair is more fragile and susceptible to damage when it is wet.”
“This can help reduce the formation of split ends,” Dr. Chiu said.
Additionally, “applying a small amount of coconut oil after it’s washed can help smooth and soften it, as well as reducing breakage as well as split ends,” Dr. Chiu noted. “But start off with a very small amount or your hair may become too greasy, especially for those with fine hair.”
Coconut Oil for Normal to Oily Hair
To condition hair that is normal to oily, first wash your hair and then apply a small amount of virgin coconut oil to the ends of hair only – and after 5 minutes, rinse out with warm water, Dr. Papantoniou advised.
Coconut Oil for Dry, Brittle Hair
“For very dry brittle hair, apply coconut oil to the hair generously, wrap with a towel and leave for 30 minutes, and gently wash out with warm water,” Dr. Papantoniou explained. “For dry, frizzy hair, a small amount of coconut oil may be applied to the ends of hair to smooth out hair naturally.”
Coconut Oil for Split Ends
For split ends, Dr. Sadeghi recommends using “as little as possible.”
“You should apply it to damp hair,” she advised. “It works when applying to dry hair, too, but doesn’t penetrate as well.”
To apply, put a little bit of coconut oil in your hand, where your body temperature will melt the oil for a smooth application. The same method goes for anytime you put coconut oil on your hair.
“Don’t put the coconut oil in the microwave or anything like that,” Dr. Sadeghi warned. “Don’t even try to heat it up because then you change the chemistry of the coconut oil. When you put it in your hand, it melts beautifully. You want to heat it at body temperature and then apply it.”
Dr. Sadeghi suggests leaving the coconut oil in as opposed to rinsing it out from the split ends.
“Don’t do it every day if you have greasy hair,” she advised. “Do it maybe once a week depending on how greasy or oily your hair is. If your hair is really brittle, you can try to put it on your hair every day for a few months to get the health back.”
Coconut Oil as a Hair Mask
Dr. Chiu said she especially loves using coconut oil as a hair mask.
“Coconut oil is a great mask and can be left on for a few hours or overnight, but because it adds proteins to the hair shaft, using it too much can cause breakage due to protein build up,” she said.
Dr. Chiu suggests applying coconut oil to dry hair weekly or bi-weekly if you have damaged or dry hair; and assessing your breakage over time and adjusting use.
Coconut oil can be used as a hair mask with either dry or damp hair, Dr. Papantoniou said.
“Work the coconut oil through the ends of the hair and into the scalp, wrap with a towel and leave on overnight, or at least 1 hour,” she advised. “In the morning, rinse with warm water.”
Dr. Sadeghi recommends using coconut oil as a hair mask for 30 minutes to start.
“Check to see how your hair responds, and the next week do it for a little longer,” Dr. Sadeghi advised. “I’d rather you do it more frequently than for long periods of time.”
She suggests wetting the hair first, applying the coconut oil, and wrapping your hair in a towel or shower cap to facilitate warmth.
“That keeps the heat in, so as it’s on your hair, it heats up a little bit,” Dr. Sadeghi explained. “That opens up the pores and helps it seep into the hair follicle. It works really well.”
When using coconut oil on the hair, it’s also important to know what to avoid, which we discuss in the next section.
What to Avoid When Using Coconut Oil for the Hair
Dr. Sadeghi said it’s important to avoid putting coconut oil on the scalp itself.
“Try to avoid the scalp – only apply it to the hair,” she advised. “If you get too much in the scalp and don’t appropriately clean it out, it may block your pores and sometimes cause abscesses. If you over do it, you can block follicles and your hair could start falling out.”
Also, make sure you’re not allergic to coconut oil before you apply it to your hair.
“Coconut oil is a plant, but you could be allergic to it, so always do a test area first,” Dr. Sadeghi said. “I usually put it on my wrist to see if I have an allergic reaction. If you’re allergic to coconut oil, don’t use it.”
The Bottom Line
Coconut oil is a natural way to improve the health of your hair without all the chemicals, Dr. Papantoniou said.
“It is safe enough to eat, and has been used on hair for centuries,” she said. “Coconut oil helps hair strength and sheen, but also helps improve the health of scalp skin which in turn may help promote healthier hair growth.”
Coconut oil is a “clean” alternative to conventional conditioners, Dr. Chiu added.
“Coconut oil can help restore moisture, minimize breakage and reduce protein loss in hair,” she said. “When added to hair before or after you wash it, coconut oil can protect from damage. This could help you grow longer, healthier hair.”