In India, hair is traditionally seen as a sign of strength and beauty, which is why many people of the Sikh faith leave at least part of their hair uncut. However, unlike in the West, the hair and scalp are oiled first before washing in India. This simple, inexpensive treatment just involves massaging 1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil (it can be diluted) into the scalp and through the hair, which is then left for an hour or even overnight.
So why coconut oil? There are several other oils recommended by Ayurvedic medicine for hair, with coconut oil being best for people with a Pitta dominance (one of the doshas in Ayurveda). This type of hair tends to be fair or red, oily, silky and prone to early greying and hair loss – traits that seem quite common in the West. In addition, a study in the Journal of Cosmetic Science has shown that out of coconut, sunflower, and mineral oil, only coconut oil can reduce protein loss in hair as a pre- and post-wash treatment.
The reason for this was that coconut oil is made of lauric acid, which has a high affinity for hair proteins because it is actually able to penetrate the hair shaft. This is due to its straight, linear chain and low molecular weight. Mineral oil is a hydrocarbon and therefore has no affinity for proteins, while sunflower oil is too bulky because of the double bonds present in this and all other unsaturated fatty acids. If the oil cannot penetrate the hair shaft, then it cannot protect against protein loss.
Coconut oil is also more polar than mineral oil, which may be another reason why it can penetrate the hair shaft while mineral oil cannot. This ability has also been found to reduce damage to the hair cuticle during combing by reducing swelling that would have otherwise damaged the hair, particularly if it is combed while wet. The oil’s lubricating properties further protect hair from damage.
Other research has found that a combination of coconut oil and anise as a spray was more effective than permethrin at curing head lice infestations, with an 82% cure rate in the coconut and anise group as opposed to the 42% in the permethrin group.
However, a third of the participants reported irritant reactions after skin contact with the alcohol. Additionally, there are many anecdotal reports of coconut oil reversing hair loss and even grey hair, with the latter being plausible due to the oil’s antioxidant properties. What’s more, the lauric acid in coconut oil may decrease DHT, a more potent form of testosterone that is implicated in hormonal hair loss. Therefore, coconut oil could also benefit hair by being included in the diet.
One popular method of consuming coconut oil is by using it as a replacement for other cooking oils; since coconut oil is a saturated fat, it will not oxidise like olive or peanut oil does due to the lack of the less stable double bonds between carbons. Coconut oil can also be added into smoothies or coffee, as well as being a substitute for butter in homemade desserts and snacks.