Monday, February 20, 2012

Question: What oils are good for your hair?

Sarah wrote in this postI have a question... which oils would you please suggest for hair leave-in conditioners? I see you've mentioned coconut, camellia, sea buckthorn, jojoba, avocado in some posts, but is there a post that discusses recommended oils for different hair types (with reference to their properties)? 

There doesn't tend to be a huge difference in using oils on our hair the way there is for oils on our skin. You'll see me write about something like sunflower oil as containing a lot of linoleic acid, so it's good for skin that needs some repair or something like olive oil containing a lot of oleic acid, so it's good for skin that needs moisturizing and softening, and we can extrapolate from that information that someone with wind chapped skin, for instance, could probably benefit from something like sunflower oil because there's been some damage to the skin's barrier or that someone who has callouses could benefit from olive oil for the softening. But there isn't that kind of information about hair.

When it comes to oils and butters in hair care products, for the most part you're really choosing them for their ability to moisturize your scalp and coat the hair strand. Which means you can choose the butter or oil you like - cocoa butter, shea butter, sunflower oil, and so on - and it really won't make a massive difference to the actual hair strand. Most fatty acid molecules are simply too big to penetrate into the hair shaft, so most of it will rinse out when you rinse the conditioner out of your hair. If you're using them in a leave in conditioner, you can choose pretty much anything you want if you're looking to coat the hair strand.

If you're looking for an oil to include in your hair care product, the first one I'd use would be coconut oil. Coconut oil has had a lot of studies done about it, and they've shown that lauric acid has an affinity for hair proteins and the molecules are small enough to penetrate the hair strand. (Click here for a recipe...) Virgin coconut oil offers the same features, and it smells wonderfully of coconuts! Jojoba oil is interesting in that it penetrates your hair follicle, so it will offer some cleansing and moisturizing of your scalp. Olive oil will help your scalp, but it's not going to penetrate your hair strand. Sea buckthorn oil might be good for your scalp, but I haven't found evidence it works well for your hair, and avocado oil is supposed to be great for itchy scalps - no doubt thanks to the oleic acid - but there's nothing saying it does more for your hair than other oils. (I know there's talk about argan oil being good for our hair, but I can't find anything to back up that claim.)

Lauric acid is a smaller molecule than something like stearic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, and so on, which is part of the reason it can penetrate the hair shaft. If you use another oil that contains lauric acid - like babassu oil or murumuru butter - you might get some of the same benefits as using coconut oil. 

It seems that when people are looking to use oils to moisturize their hair, they're really looking for more conditioning or more water retention, and neither of these goals is accomplished well by including more oils in hair care products. If you have really dry hair, you're better off incorporating more humectants into your products to draw water from the atmosphere to your hair. Adding some glycerin, honeyquat (which conditions as well), sorbitol, or another humectant to your product will increase the moisturization level of the product better than adding an oil.

If you are looking for more conditioning, adding more cationic quaternary compound - like Incroquat BTMS-50, Incroquat BTMS-25, Incroquat CR, cetrimonium bromide, behentrimonium methosulfate, and so on - will increase the conditioning of the product. Adding a fatty alcohol at up to 50% of the conditioning agent - something like cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, behenyl alcohol - will boost the substantivity of the product.

If you really are looking to include a ton of oils in your products, then I've included some links below that might help!

So the short answer for Sarah's question is that if you want to add an oil to a leave in conditioner to benefit your hair strand, I'd go for coconut oil or another oil with lauric acid. If you want to add an oil to a leave in conditioner to help your scalp, then you have quite a few to choose from. Go for something that you like and have around the house because there isn't a big difference in carrier and exotic oils when it comes to moisturizing your scalp or coating your hair strand.

I know there will be people who disagree with me, and that's great. Send me along the links for the information you provide and I'll read them! 

Related posts:
Adding slip to hair care products with fatty alcohols
Conditioners: Humectants and frizz
Adding slip to conditioners with oils and butters
Hair care section of the blog
Emollients - oils, butters & esters - section of the blog
E-mail question: Using oils in our hair care products


Anonymous said...

Awww I'm sooo pleased you spent the time to write a post on this... <3 <3

Thank you ever so much... (Still haven't read it... couldn't help not thanking you first!!)


Anonymous said...

Absolutely Amazing! As if you've read my mine word for word... I am indeed looking for something like Coconut oil, and I wanted specifically to know what is the property to look for in oils that will offer more support than just coating the hair... and you've kindly mentioned it (Lauric acid) :D ...
This also includes the info about jojoba and olive oil...

Very very useful post, I can't express my gratitude enough!


p said...

Hi Susan! I was wondering if you've encountered anything about broccoli seed oil (and other oils high in erucic acid) as having silicone-like properties. Here are a couple of suppliers' pages describing its hair-loving effects:

I bought some broccoli seed oil (from FNWL) and I do find it imparts a lightweight, silicone-like sheen to my hair better than any other oil I've tried.

Snowbaby said...

This post is very timely! I made a list of ingredients to buy for some projects I have in mind. I planned to buy tonight. I might save a few (well more than a few) bucks and cut out some of the oils.

I do have fractionated coconut oil, virgin coconut oil, babassu oil, and murumuru butter on my list.

This stuff is fun!

I do have a question. In a previous post you mentioned that mango butter is astringent. Will it have the same dry finish on hair that it does on skin?

Snowbaby said...

Oh, could Palm Kernel Oil be added to the list that penetrate the hair shaft? I believe it is made up of smaller fatty acid molecules

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Snowbaby. Since I haven't seen any studies confirming that palm kernel oil can penetrate the hair strand, I'm not comfortable saying for sure that it will work, but I feel comfortable saying "If you use another oil that contains lauric acid - like babassu oil or murumuru butter or palm kernel oil - you might get some of the same benefits as using coconut oil."

Hi p. I hate broccoli and I understand there is a slight smell of it, so I'm not planning on trying it in the near future. (We are talking getting violently ill when I smell it, so it's really not a great idea!) What do you think of it? Can you share a little bit more so I can make a post about it and give you opinion? (I can offer some science when I've done some research on it!)

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Rosi asked this question in this post: So, if oils do not penetrate our skin and hair strand it realy doen't matter which oils to use, does it? Can one add wax to a leave in conditioner? Thanks, Rosi

Unless you're using a lauric acid rich oil, none of the other ones have been shown to penetrate the hair shaft. So it really doesn't matter if you use olive or sunflower or hempseed oil - these oils will not penetrate your hair shaft.

You can add wax to a conditioner - what kind? Beeswax, carnuaba, or emulsifying? And why would you want to add a wax? What is your end goal and what do you expect the wax to bring to the party?

Anonymous said...

THanks, Susan.
Well, i added some paraffin wax to a leave in conditioner because i am looking for something that will help hold my curls and i think it did help. I have tried many leave in conditioner and i did not like the end result. the hair is always to light and the curls are not so perfect, the hair was always poofy.

Anonymous said...


Do you mind linking this post to your Hair care lists? Very useful indeed.

The idea of adding was to hold the curl is very interesting indeed! But I'm sure it will cause build up, as washing off the wax isn't that easy, no?


Anonymous said...

Hi Susan

Regarding Argan Oil: The only genuine information I could find (aside from hype), is that it's grown organically, contains very high levels of Vitamin E, and is created by a cooperative of women (that alone is a good enough reason for me to buy it).

I recently purchased 100mls just to see if it lived up to the hype.

In short, I was a bit surprised. I applied a few drops to freshly washed, UNCONDITIONED hair (that's just how I test oils for my hair) and left it to dry naturally.

(I have very long hair that tends to be oily at the scalp, with dry ends, so I only wash the scalp and leave the ends alone.)

To my great surprise, it felt like virgin hair once it was dry. I was also surprised to find that a wide-toothed comb seemed to glide through my hair while it was still wet.

Then I tried it on my face. According to the hype, Argan Oil is very good at firming skin that's lost a bit of tone.

I can honestly say that I felt my skin firm slightly as the oil was absorbed - I wasn't expecting that - at all (being the cynic I am).

Rubbing some in my hands, didn't leave the greasy feeling I was expecting - it's hard to describe the feeling, sort of waxy, but not? Very smooth and soft.

In short, I'd recommend you try it for yourself....though I do wish some serious studies could be done on it to find out more, I've decided to use Argan Oil instead of other oils in my conditioner formulas.

Nancy said...

I am thrilled to have found your blog - what a lot of effort you put in and TONS of really stellar information. Thank you! I've donated my $25 and look forward to my ebook on hair stuff.
I have dry dry hair that is fine and fragile. I am trying to give up the expensive salon products and have embarked on a mission to make my own with varying degrees of success. The shampoo I think I have figured out but conditioner is stumping me.
I have spent hours and hours researching ingredients to moisturize my hair. Humectants ultimately do not help in the low humidity of winter. I am adding oils (they vary - sweet almond is the best so far) to the commercial conditioner but my goal is to go commercial free.
Any suggestions for what to add to my concoctions that will super moisturize hair?? I just do not want to spend tons of $ on stuff that is not going to work. I am able to load my hair up with oil - anti humectant oils - and they soak right in, apparently, because I am not oily.
My hair is virgin, graying and longish.
Any insights will be awesome! :)

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Kari! I'm answering your question in today's Weekend Wonderings. The short answer - coconut oil! Inexpensive, well studied, and awesome! And the virgin coconut oil smells like coconut!

soapilyeverafter said...

hi there, just one question, when you say coconut oil, do you mean fractionated or the kind that is semi solid and white at room temp?


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

As it's the lauric acid that likes our hair, you have to go with the solid stuff. Fractionated coconut oil, although awesome, doesn't contain lauric acid.

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