People have used coconut oil for thousands of years to moisturize their hair and scalp. In recent years, science has confirmed what many people already knew—coconut oil is a highly effective hair treatment.
Want to promote hair growth? Get smoother, sleeker hair? Get rid of annoying dandruff?
This guide will go over the top five benefits of coconut oil for hair, along with the evidence that proves why it works so well. Most importantly, we'll talk about how YOU can use coconut oil on your hair, step by step!
To learn how coconut oil works, first you need to understand the structure of hair itself. This will really help you understand your body and how to treat it better. Let’s start there.
Hair Structure: What You Need to Know
To get why coconut oil works, first you need to understand how hair is structured. Each individual hair on your head is shaped like a cylinder. It has an inner tube made up of the cortex and medulla, and this tube is surrounded by a keratin-based shell called the cuticle.
The cuticle isn’t very flexible, so it struggles to maintain its shape when hair expands and contracts. A healthy cuticle is able to keep its shape and protect the cortex within. A damaged cuticle, on the other hand, has trouble defending itself against the elements.
The cuticle can crack or break, thereby exposing the cortex and letting out all the moisture inside. When cuticles break, your hair can feel coarse and have split ends.
The cuticle has to protect the cortex from many elements, including heat, chemicals, and even water. In fact, water is one of the worst culprits for cuticle damage. Read on to find out why.
Here's a serious close up of a single hair. Hair can feel dry and damaged if the cuticle breaks. (Sam Lindsay/All rights reserved)
Water, Hair, and the Dangers of Hygral Fatigue
When the individual hairs on your head get wet, they expand. When the water evaporates, they contract again. All of this movement can be tough on the cuticle, which is made up of a pretty inflexible material (the protein keratin, which also forms your fingernails and toenails).
Healthy cuticles are good at warding off water and preventing over-absorption. In fact, having “hydrophobic” hair is one sign that your hair is healthy. You can analyze your own hair with a simple test: put a lock of hair in a glass of water. If it floats for a while, then it’s hydrophobic (hurray!).
If, on the other hand, your hair sinks right to the bottom, then it absorbs water fast. If the cuticles around your hairs let in too much water too fast, then the actual fibers of the hair can come apart. This occurrence, known as hygral fatigue, shows itself with coarseness, breakage, and split ends.
As you’ll see below, coconut oil is a great way to make your hair more hydrophobic, thereby protecting the cuticle and cortex within and preventing your hairs from unraveling like a ball of yarn. Before going into the benefits of coconut oil for your hair, let’s quickly review the other factors that affect the health of your hair.
Too much blow drying and straightening can turn your hair into an arid desert.
What's Damaging Your Hair?
Your hair is technically a dead fiber once it leaves your scalp, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t respond to factors in your environment. Some external forces that damage hair are
- Heat, as from a blow dryer or hair straightener
- Chemicals, as from certain shampoos, conditioners, and hair dyes
- Touching and twisting, as from elastic, clips, or even just twirling your hair
Besides your environment, your hair is also affected by internal factors, like your
- Scalp circulation
- Stress levels (lots of stress can make your hair fall out!)
Coconut oil addresses many of these factors. It helps moisturize your hair, plus it can be used to treat conditions, like dandruff and head lice. But why is it actually good for your hair?
Let’s look at the top five benefits of coconut oil for your hair, why it works, and how you can use it.
Bring the moisture back to your hair with a home coconut oil treatment.
Top 5 Benefits of Coconut Oil for Hair
Applying coconut oil to your hair is a natural, chemical-free, and effective way to:
#1: Deeply condition your hair
#2: Treat and prevent damage
#3: Reduce dandruff
#4: Treat head lice
#5: Stimulate hair growth
With its cosmetic and medical benefits, coconut oil holistically maintains hair and scalp health in an all-natural way. While it may seem too good to be true, there are research studies that support its efficacy, as you’ll see below.
First, let’s look at the most common use of coconut oil for hair—as a moisturizer.
Benefit #1: Deeply Condition Your Hair
Coconut oil is highly effective at flooding your hair with moisture. Remember how each hair is made of an inner tube surrounded by the cuticle? Coconut oil can actually penetrate the cuticle, make its way into the hair shaft, and moisturize it from the inside out.
Once it soaks into your hair, coconut oil nourishes it with vitamins, mainly Vitamin E and K, minerals, like iron, and lauric acid. The lauric acid, in particular, is special, because it's attracted to proteins in the hair and helps coconut oil soak in.
In addition to moisturizing your hair with vitamins and minerals, coconut oil also helps seal off the cuticle. This helps restore damaged cuticles and prevent hygral fatigue, or over-absorption of water. Coconut oil both adds and prevents the loss of moisture.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Read on to see what the Journal of Cosmetic Science has to say about the effectiveness of coconut oil as a hair moisturizer.
When they looked closely, scientists confirmed what lots of people have known for centuries: coconut oil is a super effective hair moisturizer.
Research on Coconut Oil as a Hair Moisturizer
A study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science compared coconut oil to mineral oil to see which one better moisturized hair. Mineral oil, by the way, is widely used in mass-produced hair products. It’s an inexpensive oil, but it also turns out that it’s an ineffective one!
This is what the scientists concluded:
“The results show that coconut oil penetrates the hair shaft while mineral oil does not. The difference may be due to the polarity of the coconut oil compared to the nonpolar nature of the mineral oil. The affinity of the penetrant to the protein seems to be the cause for this difference in their behavior.
This study also indicates that the swelling of hair is limited by the presence oil. Since the process of swelling and deswelling of hair is one of the causes of hair damage by hygral fatigue, coconut oil, which is a better penetrant than mineral oil, may provide better protection from damage by hygral fatigue.”
When the scientists talk about the “affinity of the penetrant to the protein,” they’re referring to coconut oil’s ability to penetrate the hair shaft and moisturize it from the inside out. Beside adding moisture, it also prevents damage from water.
Research studies aside, how can you actually apply coconut oil to your hair for a super dose of moisture?
How to Use Coconut Oil to Moisturize Your Hair
There really aren’t too many ways to go wrong with coconut oil. For the most part, you can use as much or as little as you want, and you have a lot of leeway in how long you leave it in.
These seven steps will tell you everything you need to know about using coconut oil. First, you’ll need a few materials:
- Extra virgin coconut oil, preferably organic
- A shower cap or some kind of covering, like an old T-shirt (optional)
- Old shirt (so you don’t get oil on your clothes)
It works best to apply coconut oil to damp, towel-dried hair. Once you’ve washed or just rinsed your hair and dried it off, your first step will be getting the coconut oil ready to apply.
Step 1: Melt the Coconut Oil
Get the coconut oil into liquid form. It’s solid at room temperature and melts at 76 degrees or higher. The best way to do this is to put together a makeshift double boiler by placing a cup or bowl of coconut oil into a bigger bowl of hot water.
Note—you shouldn’t microwave the coconut oil. This can degrade the proteins. If you have fine hair and are only using a little, then you could also just rub the coconut oil between your hands. I use the double boiler method, as I’ve got thick hair and need to use several tablespoons of oil.
Step 2: Determine How Much Coconut Oil to Use in Your Hair
Experiment with how much oil to put in your hair. Finer hair may just use one to two teaspoons. If you have thicker hair, then you might use three to five tablespoons and work it through section by section. Figuring out the right amount may take some trial and error, but you can always rinse it out if you feel like you put too much.
Step 3: Work the Coconut Oil Into Your Hair
Work the coconut oil through your hair starting from the ends and moving your way up. You might avoid or go light on the roots and scalp, unless you’re specifically looking to moisturize your scalp or treat dandruff. If you’re not, then too much oil here could make the hair heavy and be tough to rinse out.
If you're leaving coconut oil in your hair overnight, remember to put a towel on your pillow. This baby forgot and got oil everywhere.
Step 4: Comb Your Hair
Comb the oil through your hair with your fingers or a wide-toothed comb or brush. Try to distribute it evenly.
Step 5: Let It Sit
Put your hair up with an elastic or cover it with a shower cap or other covering. You can let your hair sit and moisturize for anywhere from half an hour to 18 hours. The longer you let it sit (up to a point), the more it can soak in and moisturize your hair.
Step 6: Rinse
Rinse the oil out of your hair. You can use shampoo or not, depending on whether you need to wash your hair.
Step 7: Style Your Hair
Style your hair normally! If you’re aiming to prevent dryness, try to avoid harsh heats from styling tools. You can also rub a small amount of coconut oil into your hair as a styling product. It can tame frizz, add shine, and act as a heat protectant. Just don’t overdo it and end up with oily clumps!
Remember, coconut oil is an oil, so be careful about getting it on your clothes or pillow. Now let’s consider the second, related use of coconut oil - as a way to treat and prevent damage.
Coconut oil restores damaged proteins? That's nuts.
Benefit #2: Treat and Prevent Damage
Coconut oil both treats and prevents damage to hair. In addition to the hygral fatigue you read about earlier, hair can also get damaged by protein loss. When you treat hair with chemicals or heat, you break bonds in proteins.
When I straighten my curly hair with a 400 degree hair straightener, for instance, I’m breaking protein bonds and changing the structure of my hair. Of course, the curls come right back once my hair gets wet, but proteins aren’t always able to rebound to their original form. Lots of heat can result in long-term damage.
Coconut oil can both fix existing damage to proteins and prevent further injury by acting as a heat protectant. Check out what this research study has to say about how coconut oil takes care of the proteins in your hair.
Research on Coconut Oil to Prevent Protein Damage
Many of the same researchers that looked at coconut oil as a moisturizer studied its effects on hair proteins. Their study was called “Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage.” This is what they found:
“The findings clearly indicate the strong impact that coconut oil application has to hair as compared to application of both sunflower and mineral oils. Among three oils, coconut oil was the only oil found to reduce the protein loss remarkably for both undamaged and damaged hair when used as a pre-wash and post-wash grooming product.”
Coconut oil reduces protein loss because of its composition. It’s made of lauric acid, which, as mentioned above, can go inside the hair shaft. The other oils, which are in so many hair products, don’t contain lauric acid and thus can’t help with hair protein damage, as the researchers concluded:
“Both sunflower and mineral oils do not help at all in reducing the protein loss from hair. This difference in results could arise from the composition of each of these oils. Coconut oil, being a triglyceride of lauric acid (principal fatty acid), has a high affinity for hair proteins and, because of its low molecular weight and straight linear chain, is able to penetrate inside the hair shaft.”
Coconut oil offers a two-pronged approach to hair damage. It both treats damaged proteins by binding to them, and it prevents further loss. If you’re looking to use coconut oil to treat or prevent damage, what steps should you take?
"My hair looks crazy. Sure wish I'd remembered to use coconut oil this morning."
How to Use Coconut Oil to Treat Damage
Treating damage and moisturizing your hair share a lot of overlap, so you can apply coconut oil using the seven steps described above. Distribute a good amount of liquid-form coconut oil in damp hair, and let it sit for anywhere from half an hour to overnight before rinsing out.
Besides a full leave-in treatment, you can also use a small amount to prevent damage from heat, as described in these three steps.
Step 1: Melt the Coconut Oil
Get coconut oil in liquid form by rubbing it between your hands.
Step 2: Rub the Oil Into Your Hair
Rub anywhere from one to five teaspoons of coconut oil in your damp hair, depending on the thickness and length of your hair. Start from the bottom and work your way up, avoiding your roots to avoid oily build-up.
Step 3: Comb the Coconut Oil Through Your Hair
Evenly distribute the coconut oil throughout your hair with your fingers or a wide-toothed comb. If you find you put too much, you can rinse it out and try again!
Step 4: Style Your Hair
Style your hair as usual. You may use other products in conjunction with the coconut oil, but it can also work to reduce frizz and add shine to your hair on its own. You might love it so much that coconut oil becomes a part of your daily hair care routine!
These first two benefits of coconut oil are all about restoring shine, body, and moisture to your hair. Beyond making your hair beautiful, coconut oil also has healthcare benefits, like treating dandruff and getting rid of head lice. Read on to learn how coconut oil accomplishes this and how to use it.
Dandruff got you down? Coconut oil might get rid of it for good!
Benefit #3: Get Rid of Dandruff
Coconut oil has been to shown to contain antifungal and antibacterial properties that treat dandruff. It has been seen to be most effective in treating the dandruff caused by a yeast-like fungus called Malassezia. Since dandruff can have a number of causes, coconut oil may not always work on it.
It’s definitely worth a try, though! At the very least, the oil will moisturize and soothe your scalp. Let’s check out the research base behind coconut oil as a dandruff treatment.
Research on Coconut Oil to Treat Dandruff
There’s a lot more anecdotal evidence that coconut oil works to treat dandruff than there is scientific evidence yet, but a lot of people swear by it. There have been some studies that looked at coconut oil as a skin moisturizer with antibacterial and antifungal properties.
For instance, this study concluded the following:
“The emergence of antimicrobial resistance, coupled with the availability of fewer antifungal agents with fungicidal actions, prompted this present study to determine the effectiveness of virgin coconut oil as an antifungal agent on these species...Coconut oil should be used in the treatment of fungal infections.”
The study looked at Malassezia, by the way, the fungus that has been linked to dandruff. If you want to give it a try, read on for how to apply coconut oil.
How to Use Coconut Oil to Treat Dandruff
What’s the best way to use coconut oil to treat dandruff? Try these three steps to see if coconut oil is the remedy for you.
Step 1: Shampoo
Shampoo your hair thoroughly. Once you’ve rinsed out all the shampoo, towel dry your hair so it’s damp, not dripping.
Step 2: Massage Coconut Oil Into Your Scalp
Rub coconut oil between your hands to get it into liquid form. Massage two to four teaspoons of oil into your scalp, making sure to cover all the areas with dandruff.
Step 3: Let It Sit
Let the coconut oil sit on your scalp for at least ten minutes. Then rinse it out and shampoo your hair again. You can also let the coconut oil sit overnight, perhaps using a shower cap or covering your pillow with a towel to guard it from oil.
You can use this coconut oil two to three times a week as needed.
Coconut oil might save you a trip to the doctor! It's been shown to work better than traditionally prescribed head lice medicine.
Benefit #4: Get Rid of Head Lice
As you read above, coconut oil has both antibacterial and antifungal properties. These properties make it an effective treatment against head lice. In fact, it’s been shown to be even better than the widely prescribed medicine, permethrin lotion!
The study below combined coconut oil with anise to produce an effective, lice-killing spray.
Research on Coconut Oil to Treat Head Lice
This research study compared coconut oil to permethrin lotion, the medicine that doctors usually prescribe to get rid of head lice. What did the scientists find?
“We concluded that, although permethrin lotion is still effective for some people, the coconut and anise spray can be a significantly more effective alternative treatment.”
Coconut oil doesn’t just work—it works better than the usual prescription! Read on to see how to use coconut oil for lice.
How to Use Coconut Oil to Get Rid of Head Lice
While you might douse your hair liberally with coconut oil to moisturize it, you would use the largest amount when attacking head lice. You’ll need coconut oil, a shower cap or towel, a comb, and a blow dryer.
Step 1: Coat Your Hair and Scalp in Coconut Oil
Get the coconut oil in liquid form via the makeshift double boiler method described above. Apply a liberal amount to coat your hair and scalp completely.
Step 2: Massage Your Scalp
Massage the coconut oil into your scalp for several minutes.
Step 3: Cover Your Hair
Cover your hair with a shower cap or towel for at least one to two hours. You may run a blow dry around your head to add heat.
Step 4: Comb Out Dead Lice
Remove the covering from your hair and use the comb to remove dead lice and eggs.
Step 5: Wash and Repeat
Wash your hair, and then repeat Steps 1 through 4. It’s best to let the oil sit for longer this time around, leaving it overnight if possible. When you remove the covering, again comb through your hair and then shampoo.
Besides using pure coconut oil, you can also combine it with other ingredients. A few common remedies include combining coconut oil with three to five drops of tea tree oil, which has natural insecticide properties, or ten cloves of ground garlic, which has natural antiseptic properties.
Some people have also tried covering their hair first with apple cider vinegar. They allow the vinegar to dry and then go through the steps of the coconut oil treatment.
Finally, the multi-use coconut oil, in addition to all its other great uses, has also been said to stimulate hair growth.
Massage coconut oil on your scalp, and you might become a real-life Rapunzel!
Benefit #5: Stimulate Hair Growth
Coconut oil has been said to promote hair growth. It moisturizes the scalp and impersonates natural scalp oils, specifically the oil sebum. Its various properties also help prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus.
Finally, coconut oil has been said to increase scalp circulation and oxygen. There isn’t much research research to support using coconut oil for hair growth yet, but with all its other great benefits, it won't hurt to give it a try. The steps below will tell you how.
How to Use Coconut Oil for Hair Growth
The research behind coconut oil as a hair growth stimulator is still lacking, but it’s certainly worth trying, if only for its antibacterial, antifungal, and moisturizing effects.
All you need to do is massage two to three teaspoons of liquid coconut oil into your scalp and let it sit for at least ten minutes. Then wash your hair as normal. Use it several times a week and see if your hair grows more over time!
Coconut oil may seem like a miracle substance with all its benefits for your hair and scalp, and many people believe that it is. At the same time, no treatment works the same for everyone. There are a few side effects that people have reported after using coconut oil on their hair.
Using Coconut Oil for Hair: 3 Possible Side Effects
People have reported three main problems with using coconut oil on their hair. Some people say it made their hair feel drier. Others said it caused a rash to break out on their neck. And a few others said that coconut oil caused acne breakouts.
Coconut oil is, of course, an oil, and many agree that it can clog your pores and aggravate skin that’s prone to oiliness and acne. If you’re using coconut oil for the first time, you might just use a small amount and wait to see if you experience any of these side effects.
If you do have a bad reaction, then you should simply stop using it. There are other natural oils you can try if you’re looking to cut out chemical-filled hair products, like olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, and jojoba oil.
If you don't get any side effects, though, then you may have just found the secret to healthy hair and chemical-free hair care!
Behold, the mighty coconut! This tropical fruit might just be the secret to amazing hair.
Coconut Oil for Hair: Major Benefits and Uses
For many people, coconut oil is an effective, versatile hair treatment. It’s full of nourishing vitamins and minerals, and its unique composition lets it penetrate the hair shaft and add moisture from the inside out.
Besides using coconut oil as a deep conditioning treatment, you can also add some to style your hair or protect it from heat. Not only will you have one good hair day after another, but you’ll make your scalp healthy with coconut oil’s antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Make sure to use coconut oil in liquid form—76 degrees or higher. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you might experiment with adding in essential oils and creating your own hair products!
Modern research studies and ancient practice agree - coconut oil is a great, all-natural way to get strong, healthy, beautiful hair.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.