One of the most common questions I am asked as a dermatologist is “Doctor, which is the best oil for my hair?” Oiling the body and hair is a ritual in most of the Indian homes. As soon as a child is born, it is a topic of hot debate as to which oil should we be using to massage the child. With the market flooding with fancy oils of every kind, it is not surprising that the poor consumer is left utterly confused.
Common oils used for hair
What are the benefits of applying hair oil?
Applying oil on the hair makes the hair soft, imparts a glossy sheen and makes hair more manageable. It helps remove the tangles and prevents breakage.
To understand how an oil helps in making hair soft, we need to look at the hair structure closely. The hair shaft is made up of 2 layers, an outermost cuticle, a middle cortex and an inner medulla. Hair damage can occur in mainly 3 ways.
1. Due to repetitive brushing, shampooing, hair procedures like smoothening, perming and colouring, the cuticle layer gets damaged. Instead of being aligned smoothly like overlapping tiles, they become frayed at the ends. This makes the hair brittle, lose its sheen and easily breakable.
2. When you wash your hair, the water can seep in between the opened-up cuticles and cause the cortex to swell. This type of hair is easily prone to damage.
3. Harsh shampoos can interact with the hair protein and prove detrimental over long term use.
A hair oil is very useful in preventing damage as described above. It forms a coating on the cuticle and closes the gap between the frayed cuticles. It prevents water from entering the cuticle into the cortex and thus prevent cortical disruption. A hair oil is beneficial in preventing the direct contact of hair with harsh shampoos.
Composition of commonly used hair oils and what they signify
Not all oils can really penetrate the hair shaft. This is where the oils prove their supremacy.
Coconut oil – This is made up of medium chain triglycerides (lauric acid) and is a linear chain. This makes it have high affinity for the proteins in the hair and hence, coconut oil can penetrate the hair shaft.
Olive oil- Olive oil, like sunflower oil is made up of oleic acid and linoleic acid. They are bulky and have double bonds and hence olive oil cannot penetrate the hair shaft as much as coconut oil. Virgin olive oil sourced from Italy and other European countries are also expensive.
Argan oil – Argan oil is also made up of oleic and linoleic acid with a small amount of palmitic oil. It penetrates minimally into the hair shaft. Sourced from Morocco, argan oil is pricey, yet there is a lot of hype about argan oil as a miracle oil in promoting hair growth and conditioning the hair.
Mineral oil – Also known as liquid paraffin, this is a common ingredient in most of the commercially available oils. This is a hydrocarbon, does not have affinity to the hair proteins and hence mineral oils cannot penetrate the hair shaft.
The million-dollar question – which is the best oil?
Analysing the above properties, I would personally conclude that coconut oil is the best oil for hair. The benefits of coconut oil lie in its ability to penetrate the hair shaft. Coconut oil is a useful hair oil as it prevents protein loss from the hair. It works both as a pre-wash and a post wash hair conditioner. It is also not heavy on the pocket.
Olive oil and argan oil can also protect by physically coating the hair strand. Though they cannot penetrate the hair shaft, they can limit the interaction with the harsh chemicals in the shampoo when used as a pre- wash conditioner. Their price makes it questionable whether they are really worth spending for.
If one asks me if there is a special hair oil for men, I would say NO. Hair oil for women have the same ingredients as a hair oil for men. The cosmetic industry markets it differently to please both the genders.
Always check the ingredients
With the cosmeceutical industry bringing out newer products every day, there are a variety of hair oils to choose from. Unfortunately, many of the big brands that market their oil under the label of “coconut oil”, “almond oil” and “hair elixir” have mineral oil as the main ingredient. Coconut oil is also present, albeit in a smaller percentage. Hence, hair oil ingredients should always be checked while purchasing one.
There are several online videos demonstrating the procedure of making coconut oil at home. This home-made coconut oil will ensure its purity and safety.
Hair oils cannot penetrate the scalp but act as carriers
Ayurveda, the science with its roots in India is very popular among patients having hair fall. In fact, ayurvedic hair oils are usually the first “treatment” patients try before resorting to consulting a dermatologist. Ayurvedic ingredients like bhringhraj, red onions, gooseberry are known to promote hair growth. Hair oils act as good carriers to introduce these ingredients onto the scalp. However, a hair oil cannot penetrate the scalp.
The best of both worlds
Modern medicine, in an attempt to find an effective remedy for the ever-increasing hair loss problem, is also beginning to incorporate ayurvedic ingredients into its hair loss formulations. Onion extracts, lemon extracts and cocoa seed extracts are being incorporated into hair revitalizing sprays.
The right way to use hair oil
Hair oils do not penetrate the scalp and only protect the hair shafts. They act as effective pre-wash hair conditioners to impart softness and sheen to the hair. The most effective way to apply a hair oil is from scalp to the hair tips for half an hour to one hour before shampooing. Rinse off the oils completely as residual oil can attract dirt and grime. As a post-wash conditioner for better manageability of hair, apply a little quantity only to the tips of the hair shaft. Leaving oil overnight in Indian climatic conditions can worsen dandruff and make the scalp itchy.
As a dermatologist in Kochi, I see a lot of patients applying castor oil and coconut oil overnight in order to promote hair growth. This is not recommended.
A basic understanding of the ingredients in a hair oil, how they act and how to use a hair oil will help you take the right steps towards hair care.