Moisture or Oil: Case for Oil (Part 2 of 2)

Water has had its 15 minutes of fame (see part 1 - the case for water) – it is now time to give oil a chance to take the podium.

Have you ever wondered why you hair produces oil? Well, here is the long story. The cuticle (jog your memory here) that covers the hair shaft is produced in a near perfect state with few cracks or holes (voids). However, over time, handling of the hair (shampoo, towel drying, combing styling) etc takes a toll on this layer and it does develop some cracks and small cavities. This process is known as weathering.

The interesting part about oil is that it has recently been shown to have a role in acting as an adhesive, patching these cracks and cavities allowing the cuticle to maintain its mechanical integrity. (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pg 85-95, 2009)

Oil is hydrophobic (hydro meaning water and phobic meaning fear which means oil and water do not mix). It therefore seems strange that oil can help towards the goal of maintaining moisture but surprisingly, some oils do! Here are a few benefits (all in relation to coconut oil)

1. Preventing hair from swelling when wetted and therefore protection from hygral fatigue (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pg169-184, 2001)
2. Preventing protein loss (cuticle chipping/abrasion due to washing and wet combing) - (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pg175 -192, 2003)
3. Help in controlling shrinkage (if that is your cup of tea) – read more here

Curly hair (the curlier, the more influenced) is likely to have uneven distribution of natural oil (sebum) compared to straight hair (Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, pg 120-126, 2008). This type of hair is therefore most likely to benefit from oiling.

The downside to oiling

1. Oily head if you use too much (remedy – be conservative or limit your use if your hair is naturally oily)
2. Do your research, not every oil can give you the benefits listed above.

In summary, both water/water based products and oil can benefit hair. You are probably doing too much if you think you are doing too much. Try and make your routine as simple and as manageable as possible for you. There is no single magic product (yet).


  1. I am a wash n' go girl so keeping my hair moisturized wasn't a problem until recently, when I decided to try braiding my own hair and experiment a little. It turns out that I need to do more to moisturize my hair - I just didn't know what ... until I read both parts of this article. In short, Thanks!

  2. Oh boy, it's really amazing how simple and easy a decent hair care can be. Thanks, JC, for giving us the plain facts.

  3. I have a preventing hygral fatigue/hair swelling, do I need to apply coconut oil before and after washing, or just afterwards? thanks!

  4. @Mel - Coconut oil should be used before washing. In the study they applied the oil to the hair and left it overnight. Some coconut oil penetrates into the hair shaft preventing the hair from taking up too much water when it is washed.

  5. Ok, thanks. *I actually meant to have typed "or just before" (not "afterwards")*

    I hate to keep peppering you with questions, but how long does it take for coconut oil to penetrate the hair shaft? I know you said overnight (~8hrs), but can I get away with less time and get optimal results? For example, if coconut oil really takes 5hrs to pentrate the hair and the additional 3hrs are just icing on the cake. Or do we not know how long it takes, and overnight just seems to work well? thanks again

  6. no problem mel - I will have to recheck the paper again to see if they proposed a shorter time scale for any other purpose. I'll get back to you!


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