Ingredients 101: The Benefits of Coconut Oil
SoVAiN has been a fan of coconut oil since its inception. Check out why it is one of the key ingredients in SoVAiN products!
By Audrey Sivasothy, author of The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care
Coconut oil has many benefits for black and textured hair types. Over the years, considerable coconut oil research has been conducted to better understand the oil and its benefits in hair care. Recent research points to coconut oil’s benefits as both a sealant and hair protein reconstructor of sorts. These protein reconstructor benefits are especially interesting in black hair care applications. Solid at room temperature, coconut oil has been used for generations by women of color in those tropical paradises around the world where coconuts are indigenous and grow freely. If their hair is any testament to the powers of coconut oil in hair care, then coconut oil had me at hello.
Touted early on as a nutritional power food, coconut oil enthusiasts quickly began to look into some of the other benefits of coconut oil. This article will give a brief summary of current coconut oil research findings and discuss implications for black hair care.
How Coconut Oil Benefits the Hair
Coconut oil is a very unique hair oil. This versatile, low molecular weight oil is able to leverage its traditional oil status to seal the hair, but complements this sealing capacity with a strong affinity for hair proteins not found in other hair oils. Because moisturization and hydration are characteristics of water, coconut oil cannot rightfully be called a moisturizer in and of itself. It does however greatly support the moisturization of the hair fiber in ways that other oils cannot and have fallen short.
Coconut oil benefits black hair in two important ways. First, coconut oil’s hydrophobic oil characteristics allow it to inhibit the penetration of water from the surrounding air and environment. Second, coconut oil is able to bind to the natural protein structure of the hair. This helps the hair retain its natural moisture content and reinforces the hair fiber, making it stronger.
Coconut Oil as a Sealant
Rele and Mohile, scientists at Marico Industries, found that while wet hair is able to absorb trace amounts of coconut oil residue into the hair fiber, coconut oil is only able to act on the surface of dried hair with no penetration into the hair fiber. In its sealant capacity, coconut oil acts as other oils. It simply coats and conditions the outer cuticle layer enhancing shine and increasing the hair fiber’s pliability. It also reduces friction and static electricity between the hair fibers.
Coconut Oil as Protein and Moisture Support
The Marico Industries researchers also found that using coconut oil as pre-shampoo treatment is better than using it post-wash. This is partly owing to the fact that coconut oil only seems to penetrate wet hair fibers. The constant swelling and shrinking of the hair fiber in response to typical washing, conditioning, and drying stresses the hair. According to Rele and Mohile, when coconut oil is used on the hair as a pre-treatment, a small portion of coconut oil is absorbed into the hair fiber when the fiber naturally swells. The authors suggest that some coconut oil residue may even be able to penetrate into the hair’s cortex, but were very vague about the feasibility of this claim. The authors suggest that this penetration effect is minimal on undamaged, healthy hair. Damaged, or porous hair, is the best candidate for coconut oil penetration because the cuticle is vulnerable and already relatively open. Coconut oil protects the hair by binding to the hair’s inner proteins which reduces the hair’s ability to swell in response to water. Ruetsch et al. found that coconut oil actually reduces the hair protein’s chemical ability to bind to water molecules which keeps water swelling in the hair fiber down to a minimum.
Black hair, which is more susceptible to damage and high porosity problems, tends to take in more water during the washing process. This causes it to swell considerably more than normal, healthy hair when wet. The hair must then shrink back to normal size during drying, but the cuticle can fray, split, or crack as this happens. Damage may be especially pronounced when the hair cuticle is contracting from a state of intense swelling as in porous hair. Coconut oil helps reduce this water uptake and swelling by binding to the proteins and keeping excess water out. This results in less trauma to the hair fiber as it naturally contracts to dry.
Coconut oil is an excellent hair oil for black and textured hair types. Research shows that coconut oil performs better as a pre-treatment before the hair is shampooed, but also works excellently as sealant on dry hair. Many black women suffer from hair porosity issues as a result of our styling choices. Coconut oil’s ability to prevent protein loss and reduce hair porosity makes it a valuable oil for those who chemically relax, regularly heat straighten, or permanently color their hair.
Ladies, do you incorporate coconut oil into your hair care routine? How do you use it? How does it compare to other oils you currently use or may have used in the past?
Audrey Sivasothy is a Houston-based freelance writer, health scientist and author of The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care (available on Amazon.com & Barnes&Noble.com).