The use of plant oils on the hair has been common practise for centuries. Oils not only add shine but can also offer lubricating properties and tons of benefits to nourish the hair.
We classify oils on the hair in two groups: Penetrating – those oils that "feed" the hair nourishing farther into the cortex – and Sealing oils – those that "sit on top" of the hair strand, on the outside of it, making it shiny and protecting it.
Healthy hair is naturally hydrophobic, meaning, it loves water – but we don't necessarily want too much water entering the hair too quickly, as it can swell and look "poofy", then shrink it again when it's dry. Repeat this process over and over again and you can be causing hygral fatigue (essentially waterlogging it) and breakage.
We do need some water in the hair because the hair strand is made up of about 10-15% water, but the challenge is to find the perfect balance for your specific hair type.
Different oils naturally offer different benefits to the hair. Although most oils will help repel water by sitting on top like a film, some oils are able to penetrate deeper into the hair strand than others, and as such, will offer added benefits to the hair – especially if you have dry, coarse, sun-damaged or styling-damaged hair. This doesn't mean you're going to run out and dunk a whole container of oil on your head (gosh, don't do it!) because you'll end up with a greasy head of hair that'll be tough to wash off.
Using any oil from the kitchen cupboard may also not be the best choice, because some oils can make your hair incredibly heavy and oily for your specific hair type, Plus there are proper ways of apply oil to your hair, depending on the type of hair you have and the oil you choose for it, so we'll look at that a bit later on.
Oil use on hair is not a one-size-fits-all solution, by any means. I've tried the most renowned and researched penetrating oil (coconut) on my hair and it just felt terrible after: It was super greasy, crunchy, and couldn't easily wash it out – even though I used it pre-poo, which means before washing, which is how it's best recommended. I had to use loads of shampoo to wash it out and I ended up completely drying out my hair from so many repeated washes, having to start from scratch (so frustrating!).
Have you used coconut oil on your hair and had a difficult time washing it out ?
Despite this bad rap, coconut oil is amazing on both hair and skin, and one of the most researched oils for use on hair. It has been proven that coconut oil can penetrate the hair, nourishing it deeper. However, using coconut oil requires a balance of ingredients that will provide its benefits in combination with other lighter oils and esters.
My best advice: Experiment with a couple of different ones and see what your hair prefers.
A note about hair porosity
If you search for "hair porosity" on Dr. Google you'll find loads of DIY tutorials and guides on how to figure out whether your hair is low or high porosity. This method basically suggests that you pull out one single hair strand and carefully place it inside a cup of water to see whether it sinks (high porosity) or floats on top (low porosity). I mean, really??
I personally don't think an adult can typically have one single type of hair porosity and have discussed this on many occasions on our live "Haircare Formulators Club" on Clubhouse. Unless you have a baby's brand-new beautifully virgin hair, your hair has likely been damaged in some form or another – whether by the drying effects of the sun, overuse of styling tools, chlorine water, colouring, hormonal changes, etc etc.
Hair is typically lower porosity closest to the scalp, where it can feel smoother as cuticles are tightly wound together, and won't need as much moisturizing because it has easier access to the scalp's production of sebum, the natural oils produced by the sebaceous glands (which are both moisturizing, protecting, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal!). As it grows along, it's more likely to turn into higher porosity, as the sebum has a tougher time reaching aaaaall the way down to it. The longer the hair, the more you can benefit from adding some beautiful oils to your hair.
Hair is porous by nature. And everyone has different porosities on their hair, and much of it will be affected by how much damage the hair has, and on your hair type. Take the time to research which hair type you have and you will be closer to demistifying your hair needs.
A little chemistry chit-chat that you WILL FIND HELPFUL!
It would be difficult to talk about oils and hair penetration without touching on the chemistry bit, and understanding how it works and why it matters. The most important thing you must figure out is the triglyceride composition of an oil, to determine whether it will penetrate or seal the hair.
"Triglycerides are esters in all oils, and they're made up of glycerol and 3 fatty acids – either saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated triglycerides."
Fatty acids (whether saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated triglycerides) are the building blocks of all oils. Fatty acids are made up of long chains of varying numbers of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to it (I know what you're saying, "bla bla bla chemistry hate it bla bla - but it matters!). These chains and patterns are what make up the different qualities in the many different types of oils you can choose to work with:
Short-chain fatty acids – Will penetrate the hair strand.
Medium-chain fatty acids – "May" (or not) penetrate the hair strand.
Long-chain fatty acids – Will not penetrate the hair strand, or barely, and will instead sit on top, or coat the hair.
As you can see, it's not as easy as saying "ooh, I like this oil because it smells nice. Let's use it in the hair!" Lipids (or oils) are much more complicated for one blog post, and of course we would have to consider unsaturated fatty acids, super or polyunsaturated fatty acids, and a whole list of carbon chains and hey, I'm not a scientist here so let's get down to hair business:
Why would we want an oil to penetrate the hair strand?
Oils with short carbon chains have been shown to penetrate better than those with longer carbon chains, bonding with proteins inside the cortex. This means that the benefits of that particular oil – the vitamins/nutrients/benefits it contains – can have an effect on the health of your hair! Exciting, isn't it? Now imagine what happens when that particular oil has been infused with beautiful herbs? Ooh-la-la!
Oils that are made up of saturated or monounsaturated fatty acids are best for penetrating the hair strand. These penetrating oils are best for dry, porous, rough-feeling, coarse hair; if you want your hair to retain moisture, or improve its elasticity, these oils can make the hair more hydrophobic (another sciency word for "water-repelling") because they would penetrate and then in turn repel water from going inside the hair strand to soak in with it. Imagine rubbing oil on your hand and then pouring water on top. These oils can cover hair gaps that friction and damage has caused over time, rather than water covering those gaps. Get it? ;)
Why choose a sealing oil for your hair?
Some hair type responds better to oil that doesn't necessarily penetrate as much, but it seals the hair strand: If you want to reduce friction between hairs, as they rub together from dryness and if you want to retain moisture as it seals the hair from preventing water penetration. And most importantly, sealing oils can improve slip, combing, and make hair glossy and shiny. If your hair is thin or fine, sealing oils are more likely what you need.
Remember, almost any oil will repel water, but it can either sit on your hair filming over it or by penetrating deeper into the hair shaft.
So the oil you choose matters. Don't just grab your kitchen's cooking oil and go crazy, nooo no gosh no... Many of these kitchen/cooking oils have been highly processed for consumption, so they aren't meant for use on the hair or skin – plus they would be missing many of the beneficial properties of the plant itself. Choose an organic, UNrefined oil whenever possible.
PENETRATING CARRIER OILS
Typically, these will be oils with saturated or monounsaturated fatty acid compositions, with a compact molecular structure and slight positive charge. These oils also work best when they're slightly heated (even warmed up slightly between the palms of your hands as you rub them quickly together), and used pre-poo (before washing your hair) to prevent too much water penetrating the hair strand. These types of penetrating oils include:
Raspberry seed oil
SEALING CARRIER OILS
These oils are typically high in polyunsaturated fatty acid compositions, with a short (less than 18 carbon chains) molecular structure.
Castor oil or Jamaican castor oil
Rice bran oil
Broccoli seed oil
Can you choose a combination of the two?
Sure you can! Again, it really depends on your hair type and what you're looking for in a carrier oil and its benefits to your particular hair.
We like to use a combination of both penetrating and sealing oils in our products. For example, our Hair Elixir – which is our version of a lovely silicone-free oil for hair – uses both types of carrier oils, as well as esters for that lovely silicone-like feel without using these types of synthetic ingredients.
What about butters? Are they good for hair use?
Butters, like shea butter or mango butter, work pretty much the same as liquid oils, they just have a higher amount of saturated fatty acids, like stearic acid, which contributes to how solid the butter is. Butters have a more difficult time penetrating the hair strand. In order to penetrate the hair strand, a fatty acid has to have a pretty small molecular chain in order to penetrate.
Some butters may penetrate slightly because of their low content of lauric acid, and they will protect the hair, soften it, add shine and manageability. For low-porosity areas of the hair and for thinner hair types, we recommend using light oils like jojoba, argan or grapeseed oils, while for high-porosity areas of the hair and for thicker hair you could use some mango, cupuaçu or shea butter – which we all love so much!
These butters are best used on dry hair so they work well to seal the hair strand rather than on wet hair which can make it draggier and more difficult to comb.
There are hundreds of varieties of oils that you can use on your hair. We love adding oils that act as natural silicone alternatives to our hair products, for that very reason! With all the added benefits plant-based oils provide – why would you choose silicones anyway?
Which oils are you most curious to try? Which ones have you tried already? Are there any missing on our list that you think we should add? Comment below and let us know.