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What’s the best way to apply coconut oil to hair?

CYW says…Is using coconut oil as a pre-poo or a leave in after shampoo/cond going to benefit my hair the most?

The Right Brain responds:

We’ve blogged before about how coconut oil is effective at treating hair damage. That’s because it’s one of the relatively few oils that are able to penetrate deep into the hair. Coconut oil is special because it has the right combination of molecular size and shape (it’s small and has straight line structure that allows it to slip into hair) and the right chemical structure (it’s derived from lauric acid which has an affinity for protein.) So while most conditioning oils (like silicones and mineral oil) just sit on top of that hair, coconut oil is literally able to work from the inside.

What’s the best way to apply coconut oil?

One of the best studies we’ve seen on this subject was conducted in India is in 2002. Researchers found that coconut oil reduces damage both as a pre-wash and post grooming treatment. However, results showed it worked better as a prewash which makes sense since that’s when a lot of mechanical damage occurs during the washing and drying process.

Does this sound too good to be true? Well there is a slight catch, at least based on the methodology used in this particular test. The coconut oil was applied to hair and allowed to soak in for 14 hours (overnight). Despite the usage instructions for many regular conditioners you don’t have to let those sit on your hair for very long. However, if you want good penetration (and who doesn’t?) you have to allow coconut oil to soak into your hair for quite some time. Maybe 14 hours isn’t the magic number but that’s the timeframe that researchers used in this study.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

We wouldn’t want to over emphasize the results of any single study, however, based on the research we’ve seen you should apply coconut oil to your hair at night before going to sleep. In the morning wash it out and you should see significantly less damage.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/el_ramon/2561512339/

Reference: Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage, J. Cosmet. Sci.,54, 175-192 (March/April2003)

{ 31 comments… add one }

  • Tree January 17, 2014, 7:47 am

    There is one problem though… I can’t remove it!! It just doesn’t wash! I have to wash my hair many times and when it is finally washed away my hair is too dry from all this washing. So I think some advice is need not only on how to apply coconut oil but also how to remove it (olive oil as well).

  • Samantha January 20, 2014, 11:33 am

    14 hours!!!! I can do maybe 2. No way I could sleep with my hair covered in oil.

  • elena January 23, 2014, 5:45 pm

    I actually always pre-poo my hair with coconut oil, the evening before a washday (with clarifying- or sulfate-based shampoo) and it doesn’t drip like evoo. You just wrap it up in silk or satin and you’re good to go. And it works wonders with dry hair and rough ends. Split ends need to be cut you risk losing length the longer you leave them be.

    • Randy Schueller January 23, 2014, 7:17 pm

      @Elena: Good point about coconut oil not dripping as much as olive oil. Since it’s nearly a solid at room temperature it has an easier consistency to work with.

  • Mia January 31, 2014, 4:22 pm

    Tree, I used to have that problem too! When I studied aromatherapy we would apply oil treatments to our hair. The tutor said the best way to remove it without stripping the hair was to apply gentle shampoo direct to the hair next morning before wetting it. That way it washes off much more easily.
    With coconut oil there is a danger of it solidifying while on your hair, especially in winter. Theoretically, you could break your hair while it is solid. So it’s important to not let it to go solid, if you can. One way is to add another oil that doesn’t solidify. Olive is good but heavy. Grapeseed and almond are good and inexpensive. Jojoba is wonderful if you can afford it.

    • Randy Schueller January 31, 2014, 5:10 pm

      Mia: With all due respect there is no way that coconut oil will solidify on your scalp to the point where it will cause your hair to break. First of all, the melting point of coconut oil is 76F (unless it has been hydrogenated) which is well below the temperature of your skin. Second, even if the oil did solidify it only forms a semi-solid mass that is not hard enough to break a strand of hair.

  • c January 31, 2014, 7:21 pm

    barf, no way! this is 2014 and in most cultures this would be considered gross

    • Brittany March 4, 2014, 9:29 am

      No offense – But this is one of the most ignorant comment’s I have ever read.
      .. It’s 2014- I think people are INTO trying more thing’s. Not really sure who would consider coconut oil on your hair gross? It smell’s absolutely delicious and is natural. And it really does help your hair…. and is awesome for many other thing’s. Most cultures? Lol…. As far as something being considered ‘gross’ in other cultures- it would have to be quite repulsive considering some of the practices around the world. Read a book.

  • Stacey February 1, 2014, 10:42 am

    Don’t use as much

  • Tish February 12, 2014, 5:02 pm

    If coconut oil is so good for hair, why is it so difficult to find in commercial products? I’m not trying to be flippant. In an Amazon search, I found many hair care products that claimed to contain coconut oil, but few contained it in the first five ingredients, and those products were solid-at-room-temp tubs of coconut oil + an additional ingredient or two–not much different from buying a tub coconut oil.

    Is there something about coconut oil that makes it difficult to incorporate into a conditioner formulation of a more common (liquid) consistency?

    • Randy Schueller February 12, 2014, 6:09 pm

      That’s a very thought provoking question, Tish. I’ll address it in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned!

    • Gabz May 25, 2014, 12:53 am

      I’m not an expert, by an means, but I do make a conditioner with extra virgin coconut oil for my dry, damaged hair friends. My own hair is fine and leans towards being oily, so I can’t use it.

      I know that if I incorporate high a percentage in my formula, the result is a very, very, thick product (almost like cold cream in consistency), particularly depending upon which emulsifying system I choose to use, and at what percentage.

      A high percentage of coconut oil – a very thick formula with the particular emulsifying system I use for that purpose – could be potted in jars for a once a week, deep conditioning treatment, but for a regular, daily use conditioner, I need only incorporate a very small percentage of coconut oil for friends to feel the benefits, which keeps it light enough for daily use.

      So, if I were to sell my daily use conditioner commercially, it would appear quite low on the list of ingredients, with water being first on the list and preservative appearing last.

      Did that make sense? Has it helped answer the question a bit?

  • PA February 23, 2014, 11:19 am

    I mix coconut oil with cyclomethicone to thin it out and make it easier to spread through my hair. Do you think the cyclomethicone could make the coconut oil not work as well?

    • Randy Schueller February 23, 2014, 12:53 pm

      Great question! I’ve never seen data on this but given that the cyclomethicone will evaporate over time, my guess is that it won’t interfere.

  • PA February 23, 2014, 11:41 am

    Tow more coconut oil questions!

    1. If I use coconut oil on my hair, then wash it out and dye my hair on the same day, will the coconut oil interfere with the dye? I use Revlon Beautiful Collection temporary dye about once a month.

    2. Is there an oil-soluble hair dye pigment that could be dissolved in coconut oil? And if there is, could coconut oil be an effective delivery system to move pigment into the hair strands without using ammonia or peroxide? Even if it would be temporary, it might be a good way to dye and strengthen your hair at the same time, without damaging it.

    • Noha April 21, 2014, 11:51 am

      This is an interesting question. I would love to know the answer.

    • L June 16, 2014, 6:29 pm

      Hi PA,

      I have your answer! I’ve been using the following two products for about two years now to color my hair on a monthly to bimonthly basis:

      Clairol beautiful collection semi permanent colour moisturizing color (color found at stores such as Sally beauty supply)
      Organix nourishing coconut milk (conditioner from the neighbourhood chain drugstore)

      I mix the temporary dye with the conditioner primarily to make it thicker and less runny, but it also leaves my hair in great condition – smoother and shinier than before the color. I tend to leave the color on for about 1hr so that it hits desired intensity which is 2x as long as recommended (since I’ve diluted it to half concentration in the conditioner).

      I highly recommend doing this then rinsing out w a little shampoo and reconditioning with the conditioner mentioned. I’m curious to try it with straight up coconut oil, but given that it is the 5th ingredient on the conditioner bottle, I figure it’s pretty close to what you are hoping for.

      This works without damaging thick, long, straight hair (like mine) or thin, fine, straight hair (I’ve converted a friend to this type of dying too). Other hair types I can’t be sure of.

      Hope this helps.

  • Alessandra February 24, 2014, 3:08 pm

    Should it be applied on wet or dry hair? I have found conflicting instructions. Some sites say on dry hair because water would prevent the hair from absorbing oil, since oil floats on top of water. Others say only on wet hair, to seal the moisture in… And that if applied on dry hair it would actually make the hair drier. Help!

    • Randy Schueller February 24, 2014, 7:47 pm

      Based on reading the study it appears they applied coconut oil to dry hair.

  • Jessica March 12, 2014, 10:04 am

    I will like to know if I need to apply the coconut oil solidified directly to my hair or better to melt it previously
    Thank you,

    • Randy Schueller March 12, 2014, 10:50 am

      @Jessica: It will be easier to spread the coconut oil through your hair if you melt it first.

  • Miranda March 25, 2014, 3:20 pm

    If ur having a hard time washing it out, it may be because ur not using the right kind. Organic extra virgin cold pressed is the best. It contains ZERO other ingredients. Some products that claim to be coconut oil add other oils or petroleum which is nearly impossible to wash out. Go to a health food store and buy organic food grade coconut oil and u shouldn’t have this issue.

  • robyn May 7, 2014, 2:29 pm

    I’ve always wondered, if we are to apply the oil on dirty hair, wouldn’t the dirt and other products that we have on our hair get absorbed with the oil or at least prevent penetration?

    • Randy Schueller May 7, 2014, 4:32 pm

      Robyn: The oil will not make other materials absorb better. If you’re concerned your hair is too dirty you could wash it, allow it to dry, and then apply oil.

  • robyn May 12, 2014, 1:38 pm

    Thanks for replying. Much love from Jamaica.

  • Gail Mulhall May 16, 2014, 5:44 pm

    Hi Beauty Brains! I still want to adopt you! Thanks for what you do, and for being so cute and funny while you do it. Anyway…enough about your wonderfulness. I do not care for the scent of coconut. I have used coconut oil as a pre-shampoo treatment, although never for 14 hours! I would really like to use a tiny amount of coconut oil rubbed on my palms (no pun intended :-), and then smoothed onto my clean, dry hair. I don’t, due to the scent. Finally…my question: Will fractionated coconut oil work well as an after shampoo hair healer? The fractionated coconut oil I’ve smelled seems devoid of scent. I realize it has the the long-chain doohickies removed, etc., but will it still work? Help me, Obi Wan Beauty Brains. You’re my only hope. Signed, Frazzled (and not just my hair)

    • Randy Schueller May 16, 2014, 6:10 pm

      Gail: It depends on which fractions of coconut oil are included in the oil that you’re using. There’s certainly no harm in giving it a try.

      PS Perry and I are ready to sign the adoption papers.

  • Andrea November 3, 2014, 3:24 pm

    I tried the coconut oil successfully for 14 hours :). I will share how it seemed quite easy for me to do. First, I had my coconut oil nice and warm, had my hair parted in sections, hopped in the shower and applied the coconut oil generously throughout. I then wrapped it up in a couple of plastic bags (that I also brought to the shower with me). I then took a nice hot shower as usual so any coconut oil that may have dripped down my neck was going to be washed off. After showering, I used a scarf and did a beautiful head-wrap to cover the plastic bags, watched a few episodes of my favorite show on Hulu and went to bed. The next morning, I did some morning chores, a few errands and by the time I was settled, 14 hours had passed. I found it quite easy to rinse the oil out. Perhaps that is because it really soaked in to my hair and my hair was thirsty for it. My hair was not left oily at all after shampooing and conditioning but was very soft and shiny. I will do this as a regular hair care routine. This was awesome so my strands and I would like to thank you.

  • Nadine February 5, 2015, 9:34 pm

    I was wondering if I apply coconut oil to my dyed hair (its a medium purple) overnight will it do anything to the dye? like fade it out?

    Thank you

    • Randy Schueller February 6, 2015, 6:46 am

      Hi Nadine. We’ve never seen oil cause a problem with dye but you could try it on a tiny patch of your hair first if you’re worried.

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