Asking another natural what the best oils for natural hair can be problematic for a number of reasons.
For one, it’s not quite obvious to most people what the best oils for natural hair means.
Hair oils can be used for many different things – moisture retention, scalp stimulation, hair growth. The list goes on! The definition of what constitutes the “best oils for natural hair” is a bit vague.
Secondly, how can you ask another natural what the best hair oils for natural hair growth is, when everyone’s hair is different? Curls are like snowflakes – no curl is the same.
Instead, we need to reframe our thinking.
Instead of asking what are the best oils for natural hair growth are, we need to learn what properties make up an oil good or not.
That means we need to learn the basics on what hair oils are, why we need them and the specific properties we should look for to address our needs.
Only then can we make informed decisions and choose the right oil for our hair.
Ready to learn the best oils for natural hair (with your hair in mind)? Let’s get started!
Types of Oils
Generally, there are two types of oils: petroleum-based and plant-based. Although these two oils may appear the same, they most certainly are not.
Mineral oil, petroleum oil and silicones make up this group of oils.
These oils are widespread in the black hair care community, mainly because there are so inexpensive to produce. Many of the OG products we grew up are primarily made up of petroleum-based oils.
You can find them in many household products including hair lotions, baby oil (baby oil is 100% mineral oil).
These oils are still natural, technically, since they are a byproduct of the crude oil industry. And they work quite effectively at sealing in moisture, too.
Because the molecules of these oils are large, they cannot penetrate into the hair shaft. So, the oil creates a barrier between your hair and the outside world.
The result? Moisture retention.
However, as effective as these oils can be at retaining moisture, they do nothing to actually treat your hair.
For example, if you have heat damage and are looking to rebuild the keratin in your curls, petroleum-based products would do nothing for you.
The only way you could get any benefit out of these oils is if you moisturize your hair first with a water-based leave-in or moisturizer. Otherwise, your hair will remain dry and dusty, sis.
To top it all off, these oils sit on top of your hair like an anvil. Silicones are a main ingredient in these oils and, as all naturals know, silicones are a leading cause of buildup on natural hair.
The same principle applies to serums as well, which are also composed of silicones.
A common ingredient in many popular serums is dimethicone, which coats the hair strand, reduces friction between your strands and locks in moisture.
In a nutshell, when talking about the top hair oils for natural hair, petroleum-based oils are out of the question.
Although they may talk the talk and claim that they are able to seal in moisture and assist in hair growth, they can’t walk the walk (i.e. provide any real benefits)!
Plant-derived oils are the most beneficial oils for long, healthy natural hair, primarily because of its ability to penetrate into the hair shaft.
After you apply a plant-based oil, the oil will slowly diffuse into your hair strands and treat your hair with issues as such as dryness, elasticity and shine.
They also provide the same service as petroleum-based oils by also creating a barrier around the hair, keeping moisture locked in.
Most people think of obvious plant-based oils, like olive oil and jojoja oil. But another great example of plant-based oils are essential oils!
These plant-based oils have numerous effects on both our hair and skin, and have been known to help with other, broader issues such as alopecia.
Make sure you only add a few drops of your choice of essential oil in a carrier oil, such as olive oil or grape seed oil, before you use it.
To summarize, the benefit to plant-based oils include the following:
- Just like petroleum-based oils, they provide protection and moisture retention by acting as a barrier between the strands,
- They actually penetrate into the hair shaft to repair environmental and chemical damage, unlike petroleum based oils, and
- Once the oil has penetrated into the hair shaft, you can re-moisturize with water, use a leave-in and oil without causing buildup on the hair.
Which Plant-Based Oil Is Right For Me?
Okay, so now you should be convinced that plant-based oils are the way to go.
Before purchasing an oil, read the ingredient list to make sure that the top five to ten oil ingredients are natural (i.e. not a chemical name).
If mineral oil is a top ingredient, leave it on the shelf.
But, not all plant-based oils work the same. Remember, the cuticles on natural hair are small and delicate. We can’t just slap on any oil and expect that our natural hair woes would be solved.
Let’s dive into what makes a good plant-based oil.
Saturated vs. Unsaturated Oils
We hear these terms often in the nutritional world, but did you know it also applies to natural hair?
Without getting too science-y, whether or not an oil is saturated depends on its molecular structure.
Saturated oils have a simple chemical structure. They are literally shaped, at the molecular level, like a straight line. These oils are able to penetrate through the hair shaft because of this simple shape.
Unsaturated oils are the opposite – their shape contains loops and turns and bends (resultant from chemical bonds that are hanging off its ends).
Because their shape is so complex, our hair cannot uptake these oils into our hair shaft. Thus, we won’t see much benefit from using these oils.
The best saturated oils include most butters (i.e. shea butter), almond oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil and almond oil. These oils are shaped just right so that they can enter our hair’s cuticles.
Unsaturated oils may work for you, but for most natural hair, the less complicated the molecular structure, the better.
Polarity and Oils
Remember in high school chemistry when you learned the chemical symbol for water is H2O? H stands for hydrogen (two of them) and O means oxygen.
Hydrogen is positively charged and oxygen is negatively charged. That means water molecules are polar – where one side is negative and one side is positive.
This is one reason why our hair loves water!
Some oils display polar-like features. Almond oil, coconut oil and castor oil are examples of such oils.
As sealants, these oils will provide the most bang for your buck: it will totally repel water from leaving the hair, keeping the moisture locked.
Plus these polar oils will slowly enter your hair shaft and actually repair some of the keratin bonds in your hair. Talk about killing two birds with one stone!
Which Oils Are Right For My Natural Hair?
Generally speaking, you want to use an oil that is:
- Plant-based, not petroleum-based
- Made up of simple molecular chains,
- Slightly polar to support protein retention, and
- Is able to form a light, permeable barrier on the hair shaft.
There are a few oils that work wonders for this reason. A popular one in the natural hair community is coconut oil (more on coconut oil in a bit).
This oil is one of the few oils that is both polar and is saturated, meaning that it can both create a barrier around your hair shaft to facilitate moisture retention, but it also diffuses into the hair to fill in those damaged areas.
Many naturals attribute coconut oil as a key component of their natural hair journey.
Other oils such as almond oil, castor oil and avocado oil are also scientifically proven to facilitate a healthy hair journey for the same reasons.
As mentioned, oils that are petroleum-based such as mineral oils and serums are not ideal for natural hair.
Although it creates a barrier around the hair shaft like plant-based oils (and also provides excellent shine), it doesn’t do much for actually treating your hair. Plus, these oils buildup more readily on your hair and must be washed out prior to restyling.
Let’s take it one step further and consider your hair type and your porosity.
Your hair type can provide some general guidance on which oils are best for your natural hair.
Generally speaking, looser curls/waves (Type 2-3b) fair best with lighter, less dense oils. Examples include jojoba oil, grapeseed oil and sweet almond oil.
These oils will lightly coat the hair without weighting it down.
For Type 3c-4a, lighter oils may not provide the right curl coverage your hair is looking for, so oils such as olive oil and avocado oil is recommended.
And lastly, our coily naturals (Type 4b-4c) may benefit best from butters, in addition to the heavier oils.
But, the best determination for which oils will work best for you is:
Your porosity is the single most important feature of your natural hair.
Natural Hair Porosity
Natural hair porosity is the ability of your hair to absorb water and/products.
Low porosity natural hair has a low absorption rate, because the cuticles are stubbornly closed. It is difficult for this hair porosity to absorb moisture.
High porosity natural hair has a high absorption rate, because the cuticles are always open. It is difficult for this hair porosity to retain moisture.
Generally speaking, low porosity natural hair works best with lighter oils, as low-po hair tends to accumulate product buildup. The less product on low-po hair, the better!
However, high porosity natural hair needs heavier oils, because the cuticles need to be completely covered to keep moisture in.
Coconut oil is a key exception to this rule. As mentioned, coconut oil has the unique ability to penetrate into the hair strand and fill in gaps in the hair cuticle.
This is great for high-porosity naturals, since high-po hair is highly porous, but not so much for low-po.
The Bottom Line
Plant-based oils that are simple, non-synthetic are the best way to go when trying to figure out which natural hair oils to use – think coconut oil, almond oil, castor oil and olive oil. Include these in your natural hair routine as a pre-poo or hot oil treatment and watch your hair flourish!