Hi all! I wanted to pop in and highlight some issues with oils. Oils can be a challenge - lots of us feel like maybe we should either be using them (alone or in products) or at least be able to tell whether oils are causing problems for our hair (alone or in products).
Because “oil causing problems” can look like dryness, frizz, stiffness, dullness, or even hair-breakage, we need lots of different ways of looking at the ways oils behave in their environment. By that I mean - in storage as well as in your hair.
1) Oils are at the mercy of nature, they can break down. Oils are fats - and fats can go “bad.” Under even ideal conditions, oil molecules can break down to smaller parts. Every oil is made of chains of smaller fatty acids. They can be arranged quite differently depending on the oil, and have very different properties as a result. Breaking down an oil is like smashing a Lego creation. Yes - it’s still made of Lego pieces. But the whole creation loses integrity when broken down into its constituent parts. A broken-down oil may not behave in the same way as you expect from a fresh oil.
- When exposed to air and sunlight, or air and heat, some oils are highly susceptible to oxidation, the process of oxygen attacking some of the chemical bonds in the oils. This happens if oils are stored improperly or for too long. Unsaturated or less-saturated fats are highly susceptible to oxidation; that includes most plant oils that are liquid at room temperature, such as olive and sunflower, flaxseed, hemp seed oils.
That breaking down process is one you’ve observed when you use an oil preservative on wood or leather. Such oil-based preservative products are applied as liquids and soak in quickly. As they dry they may become tacky (sticky and stiff) and darkened in the sun and wind. The oil’s chemical structure changes through oxidation.
Something like this might also occur in your hair - it's more likely to have occurred during storage - but that last bit of heat and/or light might be the "final straw.". Oils in hair are exposed to oxygen and sunlight - and heat if you use a hair dryer or heat styling tools. If you notice that some oils seem to change in performance within several hours of application - oxidation may be part of the cause.
A product containing 0.5% olive oil will behave differently than applying 100% olive oil to your hair. Keep that in mind as well!
- The other process occurs in the presence of water and breaks triglycerides (which are a common form of fatty acid in plants) into the fatty acids and glycerol that triglycerides are made from. In well-formulated, water-based hair products this probably won’t be an issue, but un-formulated oils (plant oils straight from the bottle) applied directly to wet hair might introduce this possibility if hair takes a long time to dry, or if you had mixed oil into a water-based product or in a water bottle with other ingredients. If you’ve noticed that oils work differently when applied to wet vs. dry hair, this might be one reason. It's more likely if you make your own products with oil like flax seed gel and notice the product’s performance changing after a while - this also might be what is happening. Store homemade gels in the freezer for good preservation. A product with a formula that does not adequately stabilize the oils may degrade or destabilize over time. That could cause odor change, color change, separation, change in product texture and performance.
If you use oils, store them in a dark, cool place or in opaque bottles. Keep air out by capping them quickly after opening, storing in a not-too-large jar. An airless pump bottle would be ideal for storing oils - especially the pricier ones - that you use regularly and want to keep at room temperature, or that go bad quickly. Keep moisture out of oils and butters too. Don’t put wet fingers into a bottle or jar of oil. Don’t store oils or butters in the shower. Less obvious (but still a problem) is condensation inside a bottle and this is more related to having your products exposed to temperature extremes, which it’s best to avoid. If you open an oil product or an oil-based product and there is moisture under the lid or cap - dry it off thoroughly before replacing the cap.
Oils less susceptible to breaking down in light, heat, and moisture: Jojoba, coconut, palm kernel, palm oil, morgina oil, sea buckthorn oil, peanut oil, butters (shea, cocoa, etc.). Squalane and Capric/Caprylic Triglycerides are cosmetic ingredients which also tend to be very shelf-stable and may have better stability. Butters like shea and cocoa and (sometimes) solid-at-room-temperature oils like coconut and babbasu are higher in saturated fats, which may resist breaking down, but they also do contain unsaturated fats, so they are not immune.
No oil will be optimally stable if it is stored in high heat, in bright light (or sunlight), or in a poorly sealed container.
Ingredients in products which stabilize oils: Vitamin E, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), 6-ethoxy-1,2-dihydro-2,2,4-trimethylquinoline (Ethoxyquin), Propyl gallate (PG).
2) Emulsification of oils: When oils are emulsified in a product, the oil and water in the product have been treated so that they do not separate. This process is done with 1) emulsifiers (that’s a class of ingredients), 2) heat (usually) and 3) high speed mixing. Oils that are emulsified in a product may behave differently in hair than oils that are used straight from the bottle of oil. This is both a cosmetic and a texture difference! Compare this to the difference between oil-in-water salad dressing compared to creamy (emulsified) salad dressing. The difference in the way they pour, the way they cling to different vegetables or fruits, or to wet and dry surfaces. Think of how those 2 kinds of salad dressings dry on a salad bowl or a tablecloth or napkin. Sometimes the problem with oils is that we’re trying to use them alone when our hair might get along better with them when emulsified into a product.
It is so easy to over-use oils because a little oil can often treat a large surface area adequately. When they are pre-measured in a product, it’s harder to accidentally use too much. Emulsification also assures that the oil is distributed evenly - in the product and on your hair.
3) Some oils penetrate into the hair over time, some do not. More information can be found here. If you need softness or porosity-management from oils - the more-penetrating oils may be a good choice. If you need lubrication, a non-penetrating (or less-penetrating) oil may be right for your hair. Or a blend of those. Oils are complex ingredients, using the right one to its best effect can take trial and error and creativity.
4) Oils are a natural product from plants: Plants are living things growing outdoors. Different soils, different seasons, different varieties of plants can all produce slightly different products. Growers do their best to produce a reliable product - their income depends on it - but they can’t control everything. It’s normal for plant oils to have slight variation.
5) Hair is an infinitely variable medium: Your hair is a product of your genetics, your nutritional status, your scalp health, your climate, your water chemistry, your styling products and techniques, and any treatments you have used (including coloring or lightening or curl-changing). Hair is as unique as skin. As unique as personalities. There is science behind formulating hair-care products, but it’s not always certain who an oil (or a product) will work well for. Personal preferences are part of that equation. There are no absolute rules for right and wrong with oils and hair - there is only what works. Look for consistency from use to use. If you are getting oil-use and oil-choice right, it will perform in a predictable way each time you use it. That does not mean you need to use oil or an oil-right product every time you wash or style your hair unless you prefer to do so. Sometimes hair does best with variety. If we do the same thing every time we wash or style our hair - we miss opportunities to be creative or discover something new - or identify a problem.
6) Over-application: Self-explanatory, right? Think of oils as a cosmetic active ingredient - they are super-concentrated actives when undiluted. Even just a tiny bit more than you need can make hair behave strangely. Our scalps, when they are healthy, don't produce a lot of oil, and they produce a mixture of oils that are solid and liquid at body temperature. When we put more oil on our hair than nature intended, it's more likely that strange things will be going on with your hair. You've probably noticed this if your scalp has become extra-oily for any reason. For some people regarding oil use, smaller amounts of oil pack the best treatment-punch because you won't need to use lots of cleanser to remove the excess and you won't have weird side effects.
The take-home message:
For people who have a lot of difficulty with oils causing dryness or frizz, tangling or dullness, part of the problem may be oils’ stability in the presence of air, light and water - and part of your solution might be to look for more-stable oils alone or else limit oil-use to oils in products. The oil in products will usually be stabilized by other ingredients in the product.
If an oil breaks down in the bottle or on your hair, it may no longer have the behavior of the original product. So the result might not be desirable. We do not control how an oil is stored before it gets to us! You can do everything right and still have trouble with oils.
Oils are not purified ingredients, they are like complete products in themselves with not only fatty acids, but a number of other chemicals that plants employ for a variety of purposes. What works for plants doesn't always work for hair!
Why use them if they're so tricky? Because when you get oil-use right, there is nothing that softens or smooths or creates flexibility like oils.
If you’ve read this far - comments: I will try to allow comments to be posted at some point in the future. That process is going to take some time that I cannot commit to just yet.