Sunday, June 22, 2014

Coconut Oil Makes My Hair Stiff! (Or rough, brittle, or breaking)

Updated July, 2018
Coconut oil is great for hair - some people simply cannot have a good hair day without it. It makes hair less porous so it doesn't get all dehydrated during washing, it makes hair soft, blah, blah, blah. I know, coconut oil is great, I wrote about it here and here.

There are those of us who use coconut oil, and find our hair gets crunchy or stiff or rigid or rough, brittle, even breaking or shedding and we just don't see what the fuss was all about.

Or worse yet, we think there is something wrong with our hair - or maybe we did it wrong. Maybe our coconut oil is the wrong kind. 

Yet another Miracle Product that works for "everybody else" doesn't work for you. Well, that makes a person feel pretty mopey.

Cheer up! There's nothing wrong with your hair. It's the coconut oil.

Coconut oil's "miracle ingredient" is medium-chain triglycerides, a variety of fat or oil. Human sebum (skin oils) only contains around 35% triglycerides in general, and far less (maybe 10-15%) are shorter to medium-chain triglycerides. 

In addition to the somewhat unique medium-chain triglyceride content, coconut oil is also high in saturated fats (those which solid at cooler room temperatures). Saturated fats tend to penetrate hair well also. This is another characteristic of coconut oil which may create a problem for hair. The oils produced on our skin contain some triglycerides and saturated fatty acids. But not as much as coconut oil contains.

Coconut oil is so good at penetrating the hair because the medium-chain triglycerides are both small enough to seep between cuticles and they have polarity (a charge) that attracts them to the protein in your hair. Coconut oil is actively drawn to the inner portion of your hair whereas other oils need to seep through slowly. This is unlike most other plant oils. The saturated fats with short carbon chains can slowly soak in to hair as well. No wonder coconut oil can behave so strangely!

What to Do:
Okay, you don't want to use coconut oil, but you still want an oil that penetrates your hair to prevent swelling and dehydration when you wash. You want an oil that softens deeply. You have options. Other oils penetrate the hair but either are less good at doing that, or may not have been studied in a lab, but still give a good result:

Sunflower oil
Palm kernel oil (not easy to find, contains higher amounts of saturated fat)
Babbasu oil (this stuff is light, but still penetrating)
Olive oil
Avocado oil
Shea butter

One might use one of these oils or a mixture of any of them.
You can use my oil blend recipe which is designed to be similar to the oils from your skin. Use it in moderation.
You can blend a little coconut oil into another oil to dilute it. Or add melted coconut oil to a conditioner. Sometimes you don't need to eliminate coconut oil completely, just don't use it "full-strength."

Don't care whether it soaks into your hair or not?
Then use any oil you like.

Anything else I should avoid?
Fractionated coconut oil, coconut "extract," coconut milk, Caprylic/capric triglycerides.


  1. In my experience of hearing from clients through the years, all nut or seed oils seem to be perennial favorites of people who have coarse(ish) hair. Do the triglycerides vary in type or chain within the different oils you mentioned? (Here's more bio-compatibility: coconut milk can be used straight as an IV fluid if kept sterile, as it is inside the unopened fruit.) Thanks.

    1. The triglycerides do vary in concentration and chemistry between the various plant oils. Every oil is made of different components and different combinations of components (fatty acids and triglycerides, for example). So each plant oil behaves a little differently in hair.

  2. In my last prepoo with coconut oil ( I left it overnight) I noticed that my hair was hard and stiff. So I will experiment mixing it with other oils and see what results I get.

  3. Hi, I´m Ashley.
    first of all I want to thank you for all the posts you do to keep us in the right track with high quality of info! I´ve been reading almost all your posts, the only little problem would be that eng. is not my mother tongue language (still don´t wanna use translator) it just takes a bit longer for me to truly understand it all.

    I did the coconut oil deep conditioning treatment (i was so excited because been watching tons of videos in youtube of shinny and soft hair with coconut oil)
    1. I really made all of my hair get cocooil (maybe too much speacially the ends because i have the Californian hair style)
    2. I leave it for 5 hours and did some heat on it ( probably 5 minutes only / of couse my head was covered with some plastic cap )
    3. I shampoo with Loreal (MK) 2 times to get rid of the oil completely i think.
    4. As soon as i was touching the hair i felt it not that soft in the ends (where the californian is) but the rest of my natural black it was "ok" so i put the conditioner (image above) and left it for 15 minutes.
    5. Rinsed it well and it wasnt that rough as before but still not the softness i was expecting it was 7/10 so i squeezed the excess of water and put my hair in a towel (got dressed up 5 min maybe)
    6. Took the towel off and added some "argan oil" and i started feeling my hair really soft (as i am used to)
    7. Blow dried it (didnt have enough time to wait till it dries naturally) put some heat protection and iron it (170° c 1 pass/ with a really nice ironing that i know is not damaging my hair as other irons i´ve used)

    Let me tell you that coconut oil disappointed me a bit (cuz i thought i would leave my hair very soft and shinny without using too much conditioner maybe i didn't dig up the results quite enough) BUT let me tell you that 1st day my hair did have some shine (i could only achieve shine using my Loreal hair treatment intense nutrition wich i wanna stop using because i really feel is something that last for hours no matter how long i leave it in, or what diff ways i could apply it, plus i wanna stop using chemical (? treatments i want something natural that will really help my hair in long terms.)
    so i was less disappointed, wasnt quite sure if the shine was because of the argan oil tho...
    2nd day it really got me like woah.. wait a moment my hair was just as straight as the first day (and it had some movement wasnt flat) sure it did have almost 0 frizz ( in my regular 2nd day i have to iron some parts specially the front because of frizz) so i just gave my hair some drops of argan oil until the afternoon to add more shine because the softness was the same as day (8/10)
    Today is 3rd day and im starting to notice 5% of frizz but is almost nothing so im quite very surprised...

    I´m going to try the coconut oil in my 4th (today at night) day with a lot less of coconut oil and let it work all night so i can shower my hair in the 5th day.
    i was wondering if you could check the products i just spoke about and if you could give me a tip to make a really deep conditioning after i shampoo my hair to take the coconut oil to make it feel really soft but most of all i want it to SHINE! like a star :) (because i read your blogs about deepconditions but all i got was information of why and how of it, but i want some ingredients naturalones if better or maybe products.....)

    THANKS FOR READING!!!!!! (sorry if my English isnt good enough! :( hope u understand)

    1. Hello Ashley,
      Sorry this is so late. Argan oil is wonderful for shine. The effects of the coconut oil and the shampoo you mentioned might be difficult to separate. An oil that works very well with your hair should leave it feeling nice after washing and certainly after conditioning. The ends of your hair and the rest will behave differently with oils, though!

      If I have the ingredients correct for the shampoo, it contains dome hydrolyzed proteins and emollients (conditioners, silicones) for softness and lubrication. The protein might cause a dry or stiff feeling on the ends - damaged hair takes up more protein. But the oils tend to help re-soften the hair.

      I found an ingredient list for the conditioner - it uses mineral oil as an emollient and other conditioning ingredients. Mineral oil is quite heavy and does not soak into the hair - and that's probably why it adds shine so well.

      My guess is that your hair might do well with a different oil - maybe olive or avocado for treatments before washing. You might try applying less so you don't have to wash twice and see if you get a good result.
      Argan oil should be good for shine. An oil that does NOT soak into the hair like jojoba oil might also be a good oil to apply to your hair for styling if argan oil does not stay shiny for you.

      Good luck - W

  4. Hi I'm Ashley (above comment) thanks for answering! Better late than never (?

    I did some changes... im no longer using the loreal shampoo/conditioner im using pantene "deep moisture" (cant really remember the name but it has No protein) and was still using the coconut oil but mixed it with sunflower oil.

    my natural thick black "straight/wavy" hair seems to be ok with/without coconut oil the ends (bleached) are my real issue!!!!!! Dry, more than a dessert, split ends, and breaks. Usually it would strech, strech, strech and then break (it wont strech and go back to its form) so that really have me worried.
    I cut off the coconut oil for 2 weeks and only moisture (pantene shamp/cond sometimes i would put aloe vera with water on my ends. But nothing seems to work... i must flatiron (2 - 3 times a week) my ends in order to make it look nice as my natural black hair would.

    At this point i am in a hair journey ( heat recovery only ironing 1 time per week until i figure out how to manage my hair w/o heat) i would really like to see if my hair is really straight, straight/wavy ends, or just wavy (? By having no bleach / heat damage.
    I did a mayonaisse / coconut oil / sunflower oil treatment on monday and my hair was more straight than usual, with a lot less of frizz (something i could only achieve if i like just partially flat ironed my hair, wich i didnt) so i was very surprise, but im really thinking it was the mayonaisse. Q1. Do you have any thoughts about mayo?
    Im going to do it again next week without the coconut oil...
    But still the ends dont go through the 2 - 3rd day... could you give me an advice to moisturize them? Is the 1. water / aloe vera, 2. Water / sunflower, 3. conditioner / sunflower ok to moisture my ends? Thats the only things i do... since i cant find a leave in conditioner :( plus im trying more natural remedies.

    ALSO, Q2. does aloe vera penetrate the hair?
    Q3. If i do a pure aloe vera hair mask and then wash it out with shampoo and then conditioner, am i doing the aloevera mask useless?
    Q4. How would an aloe vera mask be applied to hair and washed or not?

    Pardon the long comment / making so many questions (or the story of what im doing to my hair) but wanted to give u an update so you can help me out with what i cant solve...
    Thanks for reading! It really made me happy :)!!!! *pardon my eng grammar* :(

  5. Hi Wendy,

    First off, thank you so much for creating this blog--I've recently gotten more serious about hair care and growing my hair out, and have long wished something like this existed! Now I can stop pestering my chemist boyfriend to "analyze" everything the various hair care YouTubers are saying about hair products, sulfates & silicones, &c... thank you for doing what you do!!

    My main question is about fractionated coconut oil... basically, what is the problem with it? An old hairdresser specifically recommended I condition my length (not my scalp, which has recently become very oily) with a 3/4 ratio of coconut oil and regular conditioner, heated. I haven't noticed much effect, to be honest... is that a result of the coconut oil being fractionated, and is its liquid state why she recommended I combine it with a conditioner, do you think? Is unrefined coconut oil in a solid form, heated, the way to go?
    That said, I'm considering trying avocado oil next, which, as far as I've seen, is usually sold in a liquid form. Would you suggest combining that with a conditioner as well? And does the type of conditioner matter? I'm currently cycling through various brands to see which my hair likes best...

    One more thing--my scalp, over the past ~2 years, has become much more oily and itchy, and I think I've always had bacteria/fungi issues. I'm seeing a dermatologist in February, but in the meantime was thinking of trying a tea tree/grapeseed oil dilution on my scalp. Any recommendations as to the ratio, application, etc. would be greatly appreciated. I'm also open to trying rosemary or peppermint essential oils as well. (And if there's a better carrier oil than grapeseed for these, do advise!)

    Thank you so much for the work you do!!!


    1. Hello Sara,
      Fractionated coconut oil is just the medium chain fatty acids from the coconut oil, the longer chain fatty acids have been removed. Those are definitely penetrating, though you miss out on some of the other fatty acids that penetrate hair and soften.
      My guess is if you're conditioning your hair with 3 parts coconut oil and 1 part conditioner - the coconut oil isn't working with your hair. Or else you need to leave it on longer - i.e. as a pre-each treatment vs. a deep conditioner. If an oil "works" in a deep conditioner, you should feel softer hair, more substantial-feeling hair with lots of "slip" when wet and dry.
      When an oil "works" well as a pre-wash treatment, you should have the ends pull together nicely, some extra weight and sheen and a smoother feel.
      I do have a tea tree oil dilution in this post. For seborrheic dermatitis, 5% was effective in a shampoo. That is approximately 1 drop tea tree oil per teaspoon carrier oil (grapeseed in your case). But I encourage (please, please, please!) you to do a patch-test with this at least 48 hours before putting it all over your scalp in case you are sensitive to tea tree oil.
      Jojoba oil could be a good carrier oil because it does not contain triglycerides to feed fungi - you have to work with the oils your scalp will tolerate first and foremost.
      Good luck! -W

    2. Forgot the link.

    3. Thank you so much for your response!!! Although, the instructions I had been given were 4 parts conditioner to 3 parts coconut oil... is 3 parts coconut oil to 1 part conditioner. Is that better? Or, I could try with raw coconut oil in solid form, melted, and NOT mix with conditioner at all... is that recommended? If not, again, I may switch to avocado oil and just cycle through different ones from there.
      Thanks for the jojoba oil tip as a carrier. Have heard rosemary & peppermint oils have similar antifungal properties to tea tree... ?

    4. 4 parts conditioner to 3 parts coconut oil, got it. I think coconut oil is great in conditioners, but it also works really, really well as a pre-wash treatment. If you're going to get the penetrating, softening, porosity-managing effects of coconut oil best, it needs to stay on hair for several hours at least.
      If you were not seeing the benefit you wanted from mixing coconut oil with conditioner and using them together, you might get a very different result using the coconut oil as a pre-wash treatment and using the conditioner alone as a deep conditioner.
      Rosemary and peppermint essential oils have anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal effects, so those might be effective. Probably in a similar concentration.

  6. Thanks for all of your hard work on this blog! It's AWESOME!

    My hair HATES virgin coconut oil. It leaves it hard, brittle, and greasy but dry. However, it LOVES fractionated coconut oil with olive oil as a pre-poo! Makes detangling after wash sooo much easier. I had sworn off coconut oil until I gave the FCO a try. I noticed that my hair likes products with capric/caprylic trigylcerides in the ingredients. Then googled and found out that that's basically what FCO is! Is there a scientific reason for why my hair would like one type of coconut oil but not another?

    1. Hi Rad4chica,
      Fractionated coconut oil is just the medium chain triglycerides - all the longer chain fatty acids have been removed. These are the polar "ingredients" which are attracted to the hair's proteins and penetrate into the cortex. Coconut oil is naturally only about 30% to 40% triglycerides. Without those other fatty acids, you have a "purified ingredient" for softness and flexibility vs. a natural, complex raw ingredient. The fractionated oil is providing the cosmetic and tactile effect you like, and you're basically supplementing your olive oil (with lots of long chain fatty acids - but a rather different composition than coconut oil), with the extra softening of that fraction of the coconut oil to create a product that works better in your hair.

  7. Hi Wendy,

    I need help. Turns out my hair hates coconut and is dry and straw like. I recently made a homemade deep conditioner that was suave coconut conditioner (1/2c), extra virgin olive oil (4tbsp), and coconut oil (1tbsp). I left this on for 4 hours and now some parts of my hair are dry and strawlike. The other parts are really soft from the extra virgin olive oil. Im not sure what to do. Any suggestions? Should I use a moisturizing conditioner? If so, do I use it on my entire head or only the parts that are dry and strawlike? Any specific recommendations? Thanks for any help!

    1. Hello,
      It sounds like your hair prefers olive oil - so step one is to use that as your reference point for "oils my hair likes." Meanwhile, definitely use a conditioner that adds lubrication (slip) and softness and concentrate it on the dry, straw-like spots. Usually avoiding coconut oil and using products that soften the problem areas and waiting to experiment with anything new until your hair is back to normal is a good plan.
      I like to shampoo my hair thoroughly after an unpleasant experience with oil - making sure to use plenty of warm water to help remove oils - to help speed up recovery back to normal hair. Good luck! -W

    2. Hi Wendy
      I was using coconut oil before bleaching and also to leave it in my hair mixed with conditioner to define my curls but unfortunately my hair is breaking shedding and fells like steel wool something I never had before only since using coconut oil,so please can you tell me whitch oil is best to use before bleaching and also leaving in my hair to mix with conditioner to define my curls as I don’t like using other stuff for my curls cause of alcohol.
      Thanks in advance X

    3. Hello Mandy,
      For hair-penetrating oils, sunflower or avocado or olive oil - or babassu are good choices for treatments before bleaching. These have a rather different fatty acid composition compared to coconut - so your hair might like one of these better. Don't over-apply the oil, for oil treatments you want to aim for hair that feels smoother and the ends pull together and it will feel heavier and like it needs washing - but more oil than that tends to be difficult to wash out and can leave a less-than-ideal result.
      Oils for mixing with conditioner are wide open. Argan is weighty and usually adds shine. Jojoba is popular with some people. Grapeseed is light. Avocado oil is a little heavier and smoothing. Castor oil is thick and can add a lot of "spring" to some people's hair. Hair tends to have preferences for some oils more than others.
      Good luck! -W

  8. Hi Wendy! I've noticed that my hair (thick, low porosity) gets very dry and breaks easily when I use products that contain coconut oil. Do you think my hair will do well with products that contain palm oil? I'm worried that palm oil's properties are too similar to coconut oil. Also, I would love any product recommendations that are coconut oil-free and protein-free!

    1. I can't make a good guess about that. I feel that those oils can make hair behave quite differently, I've used them both alone to assess the effects. When you've had bad experiences with oils, I'd proceed with caution. Maybe use the product occasionally. Great ideas for product-lists!