To Coconut Oil or Not to Coconut Oil that is the Question.
Don’t panic, this is not about hating on our beloved coconut oil. Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty to let the silver hair community know why you might want to reconsider the use of coconut oil on your hair as a moisture treatment. I first started questioning putting coconut oil on hair after applying it to my own hair and noticing it made my hair very staticky. Why would it do this if it was supposed to be so good for moisturizing the hair? That led me to do some research, of course.
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First, let’s look at the hair from microscopic level:
The cuticle is the outer layer of hair made up of keratin in the form of shingles, and they look and act like shingles on a roof. When they are in great shape, they lay evenly and flat, they protect the hair shaft from losing or gaining too much moisture (water) too quickly. Things change the longer they are exposed to the environment, heat, chemicals, water, friction, and so on. When extremely damaged, from bleaching or heat, those shingles become thin, broken, or split causing the hair to lose or gain too much moisture.
The cells that make up the cuticle are coated in a lipid layer. Lipids are fatty acids, insoluble in water; they are broken down with solvents (soaps and other alkaline treatments like relaxers and bleaching agents). Those lipids are what must be damaged in order to open up the cuticle shingles so chemicals can penetrate and alter the cortex. This is why many people (manufacturers included) use oil for “hydration.”
Let’s imagine putting oil on that roof…would it fix the broken split shingles? Unlikely, but it will prevent water from entering the shingle, so you might think it is helping but in reality underneath is still dry and split.
Next, is the cortex layer of the hair, this is sort of like the insulation and rafters in your roof. It creates the bulk (what we usually refer to as coarse or fine stands), it creates the color by storing melanin, and it is the strength, it provides moisture, and it contains some protein. When the cortex is healthy, your hair is strong and has a balanced ratio of moisture to protein. Virgin hair (hair with no color treatments, no relaxers, no perms, and no heat damage) will have the healthiest cortex.
The inner core of the hair shaft is called the medulla. It is the open space in your attic. In fine hair, white hair, or some blonde hairs, the medulla can be absent all together which can mean if you have a damaged cuticle, your hair shaft will be prone to split ends, breakage and staining.
Because of this, silver hair can be even more susceptible to environmental factors, such as sun damage, heating tool damage, vigorous or rough scrubbing, overuse of drying ingredients (like denatured alcohol), and even a terry cloth towel creates friction that can damage the cuticle (this is why curly girls love t-shirt and microfiber towels).
Back to oils, what do oils and butters actually do for the hair? There are different types of oils with different molecular structures. That molecular structure dictates many things including its ability to penetrate the hair shaft.
Oils are lipids (also known as insoluble fats); our own skin produces an insoluble fat called sebum. As mentioned before, the hair itself is has a protective lipid coating; so, oils serve a unique purpose in hair care.
They are not, as so many believe, moisturizing or hydrating. Oils protect hair from sun, heat, and environmental damage. They also provide flexibility, slip, lubrication, and ultimately protection from breakage. Because oils repel water, they are considered hydrophobic. Therefore, they should really be thought of as a sealant.
If applied to damp hair they will hold moisture in and protect the hair from taking on too much moisture and swelling. If applied to dry hair they will block moisture from getting into the cuticle, you don’t want this unless you live in a humid climate and/or you have a higher porosity hair.
With hair oils, less is more:
Applying a large amount of coconut oil until you have a greasy head has little benefit. Applying a moderate amount of coconut oil to damp hair and say sleeping in it overnight and shampooing it out in the morning or using it as a pre-poo and applying it 30 minutes before a shampooing is of more benefit than using it as a “leave-in.” While coconut oil is capable of penetrating the hair shaft, it does its best work with higher porosity hair.
So, if you have low-porosity hair (which most silver hair will be on the lower end of the spectrum) coconut oil acts like a heavy plastic coating because it is solid at room temperature. That plastic coating blocks moisture and protein from getting into your hair much the same way silicones do. In addition, because coconut oil protects the hair from protein loss, if you already have protein overload, it will be counter-productive.
Melissa Demonstrates What Happens When You Use Coconut Oil for Hydration:
“Heads up! Coconut oil is not good for every head of hair. I was loving my transition and suddenly my hair just felt super dry and straw like. A silver sister mentioned this fact and I realized that’s where I went wrong.
I wasn’t using heat, only washing when necessary, conditioning like crazy, and last, but not least, applying coconut oil. I’d spritz my hair with water and re-apply especially the last few days, as it was feeling drier I’d use even more. Both pics taken the same day. The before is while using and the after is after a super duper wash and condition.”
Melissa’s results speak for themselves…you can clearly tell how hydrated her hair was after removing the coconut oil and adding back in some hydrating conditioner.
Is Oil Curly Girl Safe?
There is so much confusion about oils in general for hair, especially curly hair. In a different post on oils, I reached out to Lorraine Massey who has stated not to use oils on your hair, and asked her if natural oils are safe for curly hair and specifically for use with The Curly Girl Method.
“Hi Lorraine, because I am in the silver hair business and a curly girl I get a lot of questions that you say not to use oils. I know you always leave out mineral oils, but your new product line has natural oils in it. It has always been my understanding that argan, jojoba, marula, and a few others are safe for the hair because they mimic natural sebum. Could you clarify for me so I can better answer when this question comes up?” ~Joli
She kindly responded back to me, “Trace amounts of oils built into products that are derived from only the best source and quality makes them rich!! It is the huge slapped on amounts of oil that are mainly mixed with silicones that will make the hair hydrophobic and eventually deficient!! It (the build-up) can make silver hair look yellow!! This is just my opinion.” ~Lorraine
Then, Why Are Oils Being Outlawed?
In many hair communities, you will hear people say to never ever use oils on your hair. In other hair communities, everyone uses oils on their hair especially coconut oil. So what gives? I think one problem may lie in co-washing (washing with no shampoo or soaps).
Oils do not dissolve in water; you must have a surfactant to break the lipid barrier. Think about it, you cannot get grease out of a pan with water alone you must use soap.
So if you only co-wash and you are using products with oils or oils alone you will end up with greasy buildup, weighed down hair, dryness, and block the hair follicle which can lead to scalp irritation, acne, psoriasis and even hair loss.
The primary purpose of shampooing is to cleanse the scalp. If you happen to notice those previous issues with co-washing, you should clarify or detox the scalp and hair at least once a month use a shampoo that contains Sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate, which can be found in Malibu C Undo Goo (a clarifying shampoo). If you want to go back to shampoo switch to a sulfate free shampoo.
What You Want to Remember:
- Oils are lipids they are in hair products to protect, seal, soften, and add shine and slip.
- Oils repel water, when your hair is DRY it is seeking HYDRATION, hydration comes from water. You would not drink oil if you were thirsty. So don’t expect that to work on your hair.
- While some oils are finer and can provide a tiny bit of moisture what they are actually doing is holding the moisture already present in your hair in; recreating that lipid layer that the hair naturally produces and can be lost from heat, chemical treatments, friction, and/or sulfate shampoos.
How to Use Hair Oils:
To get the most out of oils, know your oils and what they do. They each provide their own function and strengths, which is why you will see several different oils in one formula.
The best way to seal in moisture is use the oil on slightly damp hair.
If using on dry hair for frizz and fly-aways just use a very small amount on your halo to add weight to that hair. If you are a curly girl scrunching out the crunch with oil, helps seal and fight frizz.
Alternate Oils to Use Instead of Coconut Oil:
- Argan oil: mimics sebum, it is very nourishing; helps provide slip and shine, and tames frizz.
- Sunflower oil, penetrates the hair shaft, protects, and adds shine.
- Sweet Almond oil: works well for hydrating the scalp and encouraging hair regrowth, great for scalp massage.
- Jojoba oil: one of the closet natural oils to our natural sebum, jojoba has been used for hundreds of years to protect and seal hair.
- Marula oil: is amazing for helping tame frizz and soften hair. Use it to seal your hair after it dries, it isn’t as heavy or coating as coconut oil. Use it on the tips of your hair to smooth split ends.
- Babassu oil: this is a perfect alternative to coconut oil especially for fine and/or low porosity. Babassu is a unique oil for low porosity hair because it is actually able to penetrate the tightly closed shingles. It is lightweight, can add volume, acts as a sunscreen, and is an anti-inflammatory so would be useful for scalp massage. (it will make high porosity hair frizzy so use in combination with other oils on high porosity hair.)
What Oils to Avoid with Silver Hair:
To prevent build-up or staining on silver hair, avoid using these oils (especially neat):
- Coconut oil on dry (not wet) or fine hair
- Butters (also oils) like shea and cocoa are thick like coconut oil and solids at room temp they will weigh your hair down and create the same potential for blocking moisture from penetrating or escaping from your hair.
- Straight olive (esp. on white hair)
- Hemp (I have seen serious green staining with hemp and it is difficult to remove.)
- CBD (This an expensive and wasteful use of oil as the CBD has zero hair benefits.)
- Black castor oil (I have also seen some serious staining from black castor oil on white hair.)
- Mineral Oil (not an oil, but a petroleum by-product when making gasoline and other petroleum products, will cause build-up and staining.)
So why did my hair get staticky with coconut oil?
Likely due to several issues combined:
- I live in the high desert,
- It is extremely dry here,
- I have low porosity fine hair,
- and I was using it on dry hair.
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As always it is about so much more than the hair.
Much of my research for this post came from this excellent source: Gavazzoni Dias, Maria Fernanda Reis. “Hair Cosmetics: an Overview.” International Journal of Trichology, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4387693/.
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