3 Reasons Why Oil is NOT Bad for Natural Hair

Depending on what circle you frequent in the natural hair world, you either feel like oil is the greatest thing ever for natural hair or the reason why your hair is not thriving.  With so many hair oils available on the market it was somewhat of a surprise to hear some warning that hair oil was bad for natural hair.  Why, you may ask?  One argument is that hair oil can suffocate the hair and cause dryness and breakage.  Others argue that the oil production by the scalp is sufficient oils and there is little need for added oil application.  Before we dive into the reasons why oil is good for your hair, let’s break a few misconceptions.

The Role of Sebum in Natural Hair

A cross section of mammalian skin and its underlying structures.
A cross section of mammalian skin and its underlying structures.

Sebaceous glands are small oil-producing glands attached to hair follicles and are abundant on the scalp.  These glands release a fatty mixture of triglycerides, wax esters, squalene, and cholesterol called sebum.  Sebum helps to maintain the scalp pH level, protect the scalp from bacteria and fungi, moisturize the hair, and lubricate hair strands to reduce breakage and support hair growth.

The distribution of sebum along the hair strand is important for hair health.  This is rather easy for straighter hair.  The movement of sebum along the hair strand is more difficult for curlier hair types due to the curves and bends in the hair pattern that inhibits flow.  Additionally, frequent use of combs and brushes, which are helpful for sebum distribution, are often limited for most with natural hair.  The impaired transport of sebum coupled with the movement of the hair against clothes and fabric that can wick away needed oils can leave the hair without sufficient lubrication especially along the ends of the hair.

Hair Oil and Natural Hair

Hair oils have been used around the world and throughout history for hair and beauty. A recent article in Vogue magazine explores the 5,000-year-old Indian science of Ayurveda and the practice of hair oiling. In this holistic practice, natural oils are massaged into the hair and scalp to provide healing and nourishment. Similar traditions have been observed among many cultures.

The use of oil on the hair is meant to serve a similar role as sebum. It is also used to provide added benefits from the oil and herbs that are used. In fact jojoba oil, which is actually a waxy monoester extracted from seeds of the jojoba shrub, is the closest “oil” to what the body creates naturally. It is also composed of vitamin E and other antioxidants which provide added benefit to the hair and scalp. In a similar fashion, other oils can be used on the hair to aid hair growth and length retention. 

Why is Hair Oil Good for Natural Hair?

Hair oils are composed of a varying mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids that determine what benefits the oil may exhibit on the hair. Additionally, some oils have antioxidant properties and provide other nourishment to the hair. The list of benefits from using hair oil is lengthy and would require a few blog posts to really dive into the good stuff but three important benefits speak to hair oils in general. Let’s start there!

Fatty  acid percentages of various oils
Figure of Fatty Acid Percentages published in Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 17 No. 2 P. 24

3 Important Benefits of Hair Oil for Natural Hair:

Prevention of Cuticle Damage

It is true the use of hair oil can help to coat the outer cuticle layer. The presence of this oil layer can lubricate hair strands and allow them to move smoothly against one another and other hair tools (i.e. combs, brushes). When the strands are dry and there is increased friction present, it causes damage to the cuticle cells from mechanical manipulation and abrasive movement against another surface. Damage to cuticle cells represents an initial step in the development of split ends. The simple coating of the hair strand with oil to reduce friction can prevent hair breakage and aid length retention. Sebum works to provide such coating naturally. However, the production of sebum and the movement of sebum along the length of the hair strand can be limited in curly and tightly coiled strands.

Prevention of Hygral Fatigue

Before we even begin this discussion, let’s chat a minute about what hygral fatigue actually is so that we are on the same wavelength.  Hygral fatigue is the repeated swelling and drying of the hair.  As wet hair swells and expands and then contracts upon drying, stress is placed on the hair fiber.  This stress is further exacerbated by rewetting of the hair before drying is complete.  The cuticle layer can become damaged in the process and weaken the hair over time.

The ability of hair oil to repel water is key to its benefit in preventing hygral fatigue. Studies have revealed that when untreated hair is exposed to water it can swell in diameter by up to 16%.  Without a similar increase in length to compensate, the stress of this physical change can be problematic. One way to reduce this physical stress on the hair is to use hair oil to repel water and reduce the amount of water that enters the hair shaft. Coconut oil is a saturated oil that has been frequently studied for this purpose. This is because coconut oil has been found to highly penetrate the hair strand.  In contrast, polyunsaturated oils (i.e. sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, flaxseed oil) have more difficulty diffusing into the hair due to more complex structures and multiple double bonds. In fact, coconut oil has been found to reduce swelling of the hair strand by approximately 50%. This clearly suggests it also reduces damage to the cuticle and cortex from hygral fatigue. It is believed that a similar benefit can be offered by other hair oils although the degree of benefit may vary.

Scientific  quote on hair oil penetration.

Increased Shine

The use of hair oil can impart a sheen or gloss to the hair helping it appear vibrant and healthy.  The degree to which oil is able to do this is based upon how well it penetrates the hair shaft.  The presence of an oil film on the surface of the hair strand increases the reflection of light from the surface imparting shine.  Penetrate of the oil into the hair shaft reduces this coating and therefore reduces the amount of sheen that is observed.  This is one reason why mineral oil was used frequently in older formulations.  Mineral oil does not penetrate the hair shaft and results in a heavy film coating that gives a lot of shine and radiance.  Such heavy coatings can be problematic.  Using a lighter oil that can also provide nourishment to the hair like jojoba oil, grapeseed oil, argan oil, among many others, is preferred.

The Bottom Line…

The bottom line is that hair oil is NOT bad for your hair.  It is used in numerous product formulations for a reason.  In fact, when you are using your favorite leave-in or styling cream you are adding oils to your hair.  Now, too much of anything can be a bad thing.  Problems arise when there is a heavy layering of oils on the hair strand.  The accumulation of these oily films can block out moisture and may be difficult to remove with some cleansers.  Always remember that when it comes to applying hair oil, a little goes a long way.  There is a reason why the bottle is typically very small.  Additionally, daily application is typically not needed.

Ok, that’s all folks! I hope you feel a bit better about using hair oil on your natural hair. There are certainly more positive benefits from use than harm. So, go ahead and oil your scalp if it feels a little dry. It’s OK!

References:

Dias M. Hair Cosmetics: An Overview. International Journal of Trichology. 2015 Jan-Mar; 7(1): 2–15.

Faria PM, Camargo LN, Carvalho RSH, Paludetti LA, Velasco MVR, and da Gama RM. Hair protective effect of argan oil (Argania spinosa kernel oil) and cupuassu butter (Theobroma grandiflorum seed butter) post treatment with hair dye. Journal of Cosmetics, Dermatological Sciences and Applications. 2013; 3: 40 – 44.

Fregonesi A, Scanavez C, Santos L, de Oliveira A, Roesler R, Escudeiro C, Moncayo P, de Sanctis D, and Gesztesi JL. Brazilian oils and butters: The effect of different fatty acid chain composition on human hair physiochemical properties. Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2009; 60: 273 – 280.

Keis K, Persaud D, Kamath YK, and Rele AS. Investigation of penetration abilities of various oils into human hair fibers. Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2005; 56: 283 – 295.

Robbins CR. Chemical and physical behavior of human hair, 5th edition. (Springer-Verlag New York, 2012), pp. 355 – 358.

Ruetsch SB, Kamath YK, Rele AS, and Mohile RB. Secondary in mass spectrometric investigation of penetration of coconut and mineral oils into human hair fibers: Relevance to hair damage. Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2001; 52: 169 – 184.

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