Coconut Oil for Hair Care

Why is Coconut Oil Good for Hair?

To know why coconut oil is beneficial for hair, it’s helpful to understand how individual hair shafts are structured anatomically. Each hair shaft is made up of a central cortex, composed of a matrix of proteins (mostly keratin), that forms the main bulk and pigment of your hair. This cortex is surrounded by the cuticle, a protective layer made up of overlapping cells that lay flat over one another like roof shingles. The overlapping layers of the cuticle protect the central cortex, and help to regulate the flow of moisture both in and out.

Depending on your hair type, weather conditions, and how your hair has been treated, the cuticle layers can take on different states. The cuticle layers can be laying down flat and tight—giving hair a smoother texture; or they can be raised up—giving hair a coarser texture. Cuticle layers can also be broken or damaged, usually as a result of repeated treatments like dyeing or blow-drying. If you’ve washed your hair with Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps, then you’re probably aware that washing your hair with our soaps raises the cuticle layers, giving your hair a coarse, matted texture. This is why an acidic conditioning rinse is crucial: it serves to flatten the cuticle layers back down and give your hair a silky, smooth feel.

It might surprise you to learn that even wetting hair with water (especially hot water) can raise your hair’s cuticle layers. Usually this happens because the cortex of certain hair types will absorb water and swell up with moisture, which in turn causes the cuticle layers to raise up slightly, leading once again to a coarse, matted hair texture.

This is where coconut oil can be of great benefit. Using coconut oil as a pre-wash conditioner coats your hairs with a layer of oil. Since oil repels water, this keeps your hair from absorbing too much water in the shower and keeps hair smooth. It happens that coconut oil is a particularly good oil for this purpose—as the research shows. The molecular composition of coconut oil—with its mostly linear, medium-length saturated fatty acid chains—means that it can easily penetrate hair shafts and form the oily coating that will repel water, keeping the hair cuticle flat and smooth.

How to Deep Condition with Coconut Oil

This is a simple routine that is perfect for using in conjunction with our soaps, but can be used with any shampoo/conditioner regimen you prefer.

You don’t need to melt coconut oil before putting it in your hair. The heat of your scalp will melt it and help it spread once you start putting it on your hair. If you have thin hair or short hair, then you might start with a teaspoon of coconut oil—if you have longer or thicker hair, you might need up to a tablespoon. Put the coconut oil in your hands then simply start spreading it evenly throughout your hair, focusing on the ends.

Put on a shower cap to keep the oil from dripping down (which it will start to do after a few minutes). Even with a shower cap, it’s best to wear a shirt that you don’t mind staining, because the oil can drip down onto whatever you’re wearing.

You will want to leave the coconut oil in your hair for at least fifteen minutes, though longer is better. Some people choose to leave the oil in their hair overnight, in which case you will want to lay a towel over your pillow to catch any oil that drips down. But you will get a noticeable benefit even with shorter leave-in times, so I find the overnight approach to be unnecessary.

After you’ve left the coconut oil on your hair for some time, simply hop in the shower and wash your hair with Dr. Bronner’s soap (we prefer the Organic Sugar Soap, but any of our soaps will work). Make sure to rinse with an acidic conditioning rinse, either our own Citrus Hair Rinse, or diluted Apple Cider Vinegar. For a complete guide to washing your hair with Dr. Bronner’s, visit this blog post. If you prefer to wash your hair with a different product, that’s fine too—the coconut oil pre-conditioning routine is still highly beneficial.

This treatment can be done before each time you wash your hair, especially if you tend to wash your hair less frequently. If you wash your hair more frequently then you can try this treatment anywhere from twice a week to once a month. You can also use your judgement and perform the treatment whenever your hair is feeling dry or lackluster.

Treating Dry Scalp and Dandruff

First, it is important to understand the difference between dry scalp and dandruff. People often confuse dry scalp and dandruff, because they can both lead to an itchy scalp and falling flakes—but they have different underlying causes and therefore require very different treatments.

Dandruff results from your scalp producing too much oil or sebum, whereas dry scalp, as the name implies, results from your skin not having enough moisture. The flakes that occur from dandruff are usually larger and oilier, with a yellowish tint. Dry scalp tends to result in small, white flakes. Another good clue that you have dry scalp is if you have dry, itchy skin in other areas besides your scalp.

Coconut oil is generally NOT a good treatment for dandruff. If you have dandruff, your scalp is already producing too much oil, and adding more oil is not going to help the situation. On the internet you can certainly find those who recommend coconut oil for dandruff—the thinking is that coconut oil has antifungal properties and that dandruff is frequently triggered by a fungal infection. Though coconut oil does indeed have antifungal properties, most licensed dermatologists do not believe it to be an effective treatment for dandruff.

Dry scalp, on the other hand, can definitely benefit from the deep conditioning treatment described above. Just a note that even when treating dry scalp, you will not want to leave the coconut oil in your hair indefinitely—always make sure to shampoo it completely off with either our soaps are your shampoo of choice after you have left it in for the desired length of time. For more tips on using coconut oil as a scalp treatment check out Coconut Oil as a Hair & Scalp Treatment.

Adding Moisture with Dr. Bronner’s Leave-In Hair Crèmes

Though coconut oil should not be used as a leave-in product, our Organic Hair Crèmes are made for just that purpose. With their blend of organic coconut oil, organic  jojoba oil, organic avocado oil and organic hemp oil, these hair crèmes provide a great deal of moisture to your hair.

Part of the trick with this product is to use the smallest effective amount. Too much and you might end up with hair that is too greasy. If you have short or thin hair, you may only need to apply a pea-sized amount of hair crème. Lots of people find it works well if you put it on while your hair still wet, right out of the shower. Start with a small amount, focus on applying to your ends, and apply more if needed.

Leave us comments with your questions or tips!

Author Profile
Rafi Loiederman

Rafi Loiederman is Content Editor at Dr. Bronner's, and has been using the company's products for over 20 years. He enjoys recording and performing music, is an avid hiker and naturalist, and an erstwhile linguist.

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  • Karla

    Thank you for this well-written and detailed article, especially about the differences between dandruff and dry scalp and how to use coconut oil for dry scalp. You’re right, there is a lot of misinformation on how to use coconut oil and I wasn’t impressed with it before however, I’m going to give coconut oil another try for my dry scalp based on the specifics you outlined here. I am also glad to know about the Hair Crémes as a better, healthier alternative to the harsh chemical-laden ones typically available. Thank you!

  • rchelle_7

    Thank you for the great info in this article. Very valuable.

  • AZ Roadrunner

    This article has been a great help to me with successfully using Dr. Bronner hair care products. Just tried the coconut oil treatment you described and it was wonderful! Followed the coconut treatment with a shampoo regimen that works well with our shower softener (for very hard water here). I use about 2 parts Peppermint Sugar Soap to 1 part Unscented Liquid Soap for shampoo…followed with a spritz of white distilled vinegar (which I just happened to have in the shower stall when I forgot the Organic Rinse and ACV). It worked really well, too! Very happy with all the products and thanks for your information on this!

  • Marijka Walker

    I love a coconut oil treatment just on the ends of my hair as I have an oily scalp, and can even use a smidge during the day when it gets frizzy in our southern humidity.