Coconut Oil for Hair Growth: A Review of the Scientific Literature
You’ve used coconut oil before.
But, is it really working?
I’ve compiled the science we have on coconut oil for hair growth, hair health, and hair loss.
- if coconut oil really works for your hair;
- the research on coconut oil;
- the interesting connection between Indian oil practices and hair;
- and the best way to use coconut oil for your hair.
Just keep reading!
What Is Coconut Oil?
Before we get into the research behind coconut oil:
Let’s talk about what coconut oil actually is.
This is crucial for understanding how coconut oil works.
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, it’s a saturated fat.
What makes coconut oil unique from all other saturated fats is one fatty acid:
This fatty acid is what holds all the potential benefits for hair.
In the sections below, I’ll share just how lauric acid works.
Key Takeaway: Lauric acid is a key component of coconut oil.
Coconut Oil for Hair Growth and Hair Loss: How Does It Work?
So, let’s talk more about lauric acid.
There are three situations where lauric acid might just be helpful.
Coconut Oil and Androgenetic Alopecia
Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA) is a form of hair loss. It’s also known as pattern hair loss. Both men and women experience it.
Researchers are still determining exactly what causes androgenetic alopecia. But, what we do know is that most cases present with increased male hormones on the scalp (1).
There are also clear characteristics of androgenetic alopecia:
- miniaturized hair follicles that produce tiny hairs, called vellus hairs (think: peach fuzz);
- scarring around the follicle;
- inflammation on the scalp;
- decreased scalp blood flow and oxygen;
- and increased sebaceous gland size.
When all of these factors come together, the result is this:
A catch-22 cycle that makes hair loss hard to overcome.
Now, there are two approved treatments for AGA:
Topical minoxidil and oral finasteride.
Back to coconut oil.
What does lauric acid have to do with androgenetic alopecia?
Remember how increased sebaceous gland size and decreased oxygen are characteristics of androgenetic alopecia?
Well, this creates the perfect breeding ground for a problematic strain of bacteria:
You might recognize this bacteria for its role in acne, but it might contribute to hair loss, too.
When P. acnes overgrows, it triggers the immune system (4).
As a result, inflammatory proteins come in and invade the hair follicle.
If P. acnes continues to overgrow, chronic inflammation can cause scarring, follicle miniaturization, and may contribute to the vicious cycle of androgenetic alopecia.
Interestingly, researchers have found that miniaturized hair follicles present in androgenetic alopecia have higher levels of P. acnes bacteria (5).
So, how can coconut oil help?
By applying coconut oil on the scalp, it may help regulate levels of P. acnes on the scalp. This may reduce the inflammation that is associated with AGA and P. acnes overgrowth.
One study investigated this (8):
Researchers cultured P. acnes bacteria. They then treated the samples with liposomal lauric acid.
They found that the liposomal lauric acid successfully killed the P. acnes bacteria.
Although this demonstrates the power of lauric acid against P. acnes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that applying coconut oil will have the same dramatic effects.
Although, it is promising!
Key Takeaway: Lauric acid from coconut oil may benefit androgenetic alopecia by killing P. acnes bacteria. This strain can cause hair follicle inflammation which is associated with androgenetic alopecia. Androgenetic alopecia miniaturized hair follicles contain high levels of P. acnes bacteria.
Coconut Oil and Scalp Fungal Infections
Let’s talk about another form of hair loss:
Scarring alopecia can be a result of fungal infections in the scalp, called trichomycoses (9). If these fungal infections go untreated, it may cause chronic inflammation, leading to hair follicle scarring.
Unfortunately, fungal infections that cause scarring alopecia are permanent.
So, the trick is prevention.
Lauric acid also acts as an anti-fungal and may be able to prevent scalp fungal infections (10).
In one 1992 study, researchers looked at just this (11):
They examined the effects of Indian hair oils like coconut, mustard, cantharidine, and amla oil on fungi.
They found that coconut, cantharidine, and amla oil were the most effective at inhibiting fungal growth.
The authors also noted how rare scalp fungal infections are in India. Although we can’t say for sure, researchers hint that it might be associated with the culture’s common hair oil practices.
These results mirrored a 1975 study (12):
Researchers found that coconut oil, mustard oil, and oleic acid oils inhibited the growth of fungi.
But, we can’t deem coconut oil as a miracle treatment for fungal infections. There are currently no studies examining coconut oil for the treatment of trichomycoses.
Key Takeaway: Lauric acid in coconut oil is antifungal. Fungal infections can cause scarring alopecia. Coconut oil may prevent fungal infections from worsening and damaging hair follicles.
Coconut Oil for Healthy Hair
Let’s go beyond the scalp:
Coconut oil can promote healthy hair, too.
A hallmark of healthy hair is reduced breakage.
The truth is:
You can’t grow long, full hair if it keeps snapping off.
So, how can you prevent breakage?
One way is to prevent the hair from damage, a.k.a protein loss (13).
Certain environmental factors like the use of heat tools, UV radiation, and chemical treatments can cause protein loss.
The good news is:
Coconut oil can protect hair from damage.
In one study, researchers put coconut oil to the test against sunflower oil and mineral oil (14).
Of the three oils, coconut oil successfully preserved the protein content of hair.
Sunflower oil and mineral oil didn’t.
Researchers believe lauric acid’s small molecular structure allows it to penetrate the hair shaft. It also binds easily to hair proteins.
So, using coconut oil regularly on your hair can protect it from damage and breakage.
Key Takeaways: Lauric acid in coconut oil preserves hair protein content, preventing damage and breakage.
The Research on Coconut Oil
Here’s the deal:
As with any product, we have to look at direct observations researchers have made on coconut oil.
Unfortunately, the only widely accepted benefit of coconut oil is its benefit for hair health.
Although the other mechanisms are promising, we can’t fully rely on them until more studies are done.
How to Use Coconut Oil for Hair
You might be wondering:
How can I take advantage of coconut oils proven and potential benefits?
Let’s get into it.
Coconut Oil for Hair Mask
Hair masks are a perfect way to take advantage of coconut oil.
- Brush your hair to remove any knots or tangles.
- Take a few tablespoons of coconut oil and melt it down on an ultra-low heat. You don’t want to damage the oil.
- Pour the oil into a heat-safe applicator bottle.
- Test the oil on your wrist to make sure you don’t burn yourself.
- If the oil is cool enough, apply coconut oil until your scalp is coated.
- Using your fingertips, massage the coconut oil into your scalp.
- Then, take a hairbrush (preferably a no-snag brush) and brush through to the ends to evenly distribute the coconut oil to the ends of your hair.
- If you have long hair, you can secure your hair to the top of your head to avoid oil stains.
- Leave the oil mask on for a minimum of twenty minutes. You can even leave coconut oil in your hair overnight.
- Then, wash out the oil using shampoo and conditioner.
Using this method, it will allow the lauric acid to penetrate the hair shaft and follicle. The longer you leave it on, the greater the chances of deepest penetration you get.
Put simply: leave it on for as long as you can!
Key Takeaway: Use coconut oil as a hair mask and let it sit for an extended period of time for maximum penetration.
Coconut Oil in Hair Care
Shopping for hair care can be overwhelming.
Different oils, different hair types, different brands.
But, you can rest assured knowing that if you use hair care products with coconut oil, it will do great things for your hair.
One of the best ways to take advantage of coconut oil is through leave-in products.
While these won’t do much for your scalp and potential hair growth, they will help protect your ends from damage.
There are two kinds of leave-ins you can utilize:
Coconut oil serums or leave-in conditioners with coconut oil.
Leave-in conditioners are often water-based with nourishing oils infused into them. If you have finer, straighter hair, this may be all you need to combat frizz and boost hair health.
Leave-in conditioners can also be used as a way to infuse moisture into the hair before following up with a serum. For frizz-prone, coarser, curlier hair, this might be the go-to for you.
A serum is usually an oil-based product that is used to coat the hair. It adds shine, prevents friction, and can be used as part of a healthy hair routine.
Some serums can be too rich for finer hair types, causing hair to look greasy and oily. In this case, you might want to skip the serum. But, for coarser hair types, a serum might be just what you need to tame frizz and add shine.
If you opt to use a serum, make sure you watch out for this:
Some companies use mineral oil to bulk up their serums. Mineral oil is petroleum-derived and may be toxic to humans (16).
It’s also a compound called a hydrocarbon and cannot penetrate the hair shaft (14). This means it has no impact on hair protein content.
Really, it’s just an oil-mimicking filler. It’s best to avoid it completely.
- A good way to utilize coconut oil’s hair health boosting properties is through leave-in products.
- Coconut oil leave-in conditioners are usually water-based and can infuse moisture into the hair. It works well for finer hair types and can be used as a first step for coarser, curlier hair.
- Some coconut oil serums may be too heavy for finer hair types. Serums may work better on coarser hair types to tame frizz and add shine.
- Avoid mineral oil in hair serums.
Best Coconut Oil for Hair Growth
You want the best of the best. Even with your coconut oil.
So, when it comes to buying coconut oil, you want:
Organic, virgin, expeller-pressed coconut oil.
Organic coconut oil is free of harmful pesticides and herbicides that have harmful side effects. For example, glyphosate, a commonly-used herbicide is associated with an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (17).
Virgin coconut oil is processed without heat so it preserves all the beneficial nutrients.
Expeller-pressing is a mechanical processing method that uses no chemicals. Some coconut oils are processed using toxic solvents like hexane which can be present in the final product.
And remember, it’s important to store your coconut oil properly for a long shelf life. Learn more about how to store your coconut oil.
Key Takeaway: Organic, virgin, expeller-pressed coconut oil is the best coconut oil to use.
Is Coconut Oil Bad for Your Hair?
With all the benefits of coconut oil, is it really safe for everyone to use?
While there are always outliers, coconut oil is considered to be relatively safe.
And though its benefits aren’t fully proven, there are probably no negatives to using coconut oil for your hair. Especially if you are using an uncontaminated, organic, hexane-free coconut oil.
Key Takeaway: There are probably no negatives to using coconut oil for your hair. This is especially true if you are using an organic, virgin, expeller-pressed coconut oil.
Coconut Oil for Hair: The Verdict
So, is coconut oil really beneficial for hair?
While we can’t say if it will promote hair growth or prevent hair loss, we can say that it improves the health of hair. Lauric acid penetrates the hair shaft to protect hair from damage.
You can access the benefits of organic, virgin, expeller-pressed coconut oil by using it as a hair mask or as an ingredient in leave-in conditioners.