Is Lanolin a natural moisturiser for natural hair? A castor oil alternative?
Lanolin is actually not really a fat despite looking like one. It is technically considered a wax. It is quite different from the vegetable and fruit derived oils and butters such as coconut oil, olive oil, castor oil or shea butter. These oils and butters are true fats consisting mainly of fatty acids. Lanolin however is made mainly of esters of fatty acids and even has some alcohols and cholesterol.
Q: Ah so much jargon! Why should I care if lanolin is a wax and coconut oil is not? What really is the difference between a fatty acid and an ester of a fatty acid?
The difference is that the ester version found in lanolin can actually hold water very well. Let me be clear, this does not mean that lanolin can dissolve in water well - it does not! It does mean that when you mix it with water, the water is attracted to it and can be trapped within it.
Q: Aha, so is the trapping of water by lanolin what makes it moisturising?
Yes, this is part of what makes it moisturising. A second part is that at least with skin, it is known to be able to penetrate into skin cells and combine with water within those cells, once more preventing water loss. It is indeed possible that it may do the same with hair since both hair and skin (and wool!) have keratin as a key protein.
NOTES ON USING LANOLIN
1. Melting Lanolin: Pure lanolin is a thick wax and it really does not melt as easily as a fat e.g coconut oil or shea butter. Pure lanolin does melt and become spreadable but you need to use a very small amount and really rub it between your fingers for a good solid ACTUAL minute. Slathering it on while it is still sticky and not spreading easily is NOT the business. If you are struggling, you can purchase liquid lanolin too but be aware that in order to stay liquid, some parts of the pure lanolin are extracted.
2. Apply to either freshly washed or freshly misted hair: If you are looking for a moisturising effect, make sure that there is water on your hair for the lanolin to use.
3. Lanolin generally plays well with other oils or butters: You can use lanolin in addition to another oil e.g if you normally use coconut oil to 'seal' your moisturiser, you can still apply this first and then top up with lanolin.
4. Lanolin is an alternative to castor oil: I have found that castor oil can be difficult to use for some naturals as it is too thick and sticky. If you are looking for something like castor oil but a little easier, then a thin layer of lanolin may just be what you need.
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J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 219-227, 1992
J Soc Cosmet Chem, pp 279-288, 1993