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Coconut oil for dandruff? What the science really says

Written by Ross Goodhart

Pure virgin coconut oil is delicious to the senses, with a light, tropical fragrance and rich, soft feel on the skin. These qualities - along with its myriad of storied health and beauty benefits - mean coconut oil is cropping up almost everywhere in natural personal care products as well as health food recipes.

Advocates tout coconut oil’s power to boost energy, lower unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels, raise “good” HDL cholesterol, salve wounds, treat acne, nourish dry skin, and more. The benefits of coconut oil are even said to include weight loss, and heart disease prevention.

But what about coconut oil to help with dandruff? If you struggle with dandruff - the flaking that results when your scalp gets irritated - you may have heard that coconut oil can offer some assistance, given its purported health benefits for skin and hair care. So what does the science really say? Is there an effective way to capture this natural ingredient’s beneficial powers to soothe your head in every sense (mind and scalp alike)? 

We’ve got answers! But first, let’s take a step back to talk about itching, flaking, scaling scalps and what causes them. Then we’ll discuss effective relief - and how coconut oil can help.

What is dandruff, exactly? 

Dandruff is most associated with flakes: skin flakes that peel from your irritated scalp and can show up places they’re not invited. Like the shoulders of your clothing, and floating in an otherwise snazzy hairdo. 

Dandruff isn’t just a cosmetic problem, though. The notorious flaking associated with this condition is generally accompanied by itching and irritation. You deserve better!

But why is your scalp so irritated in the first place? And what can you do to smooth over the situation? 

Root causes of dandruff

Many different underlying conditions can trigger the irritation that lead to dandruff flakes. Seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis can all be root culprits of flaking, as can many other conditions. Your flakes might even be caused by a combination of these factors.

Other factors thought to play a role in making people susceptible to dandruff include pollution exposure, humidity levels, stress, genetics, and diet (including zinc levels, omega 3 fatty acids, food allergies and more). 

Many causes, same outcome

With so many potential root causes, you may be wondering whether you need a specific diagnosis in order to treat your dandruff effectively. Fortunately, the answer is likely no.

While you should certainly consult a doctor or dermatologist if you have healthcare questions or concerning symptoms, dandruff can usually be treated safely and effectively without a prescription. That’s because dandruff - whatever its root cause - always involves the same runaway process of scalp irritation and flaking. It also seems to involve an overgrowth of Malassezia, a fungus that naturally occurs as part of your skin’s microbiome, and activity of the sebaceous glands (this study offers more technical info than you probably need on that subject!). 

Basically, the sebaceous glands are connected to your hair follicles and produce sebum, a secretion that moisturizes your hair and skin. Malassezia fungus feeds on sebum normally - but when an imbalance occurs, the fungus can leave behind excess waste products that make your scalp irritated and inflamed. 

What does this mean for you? It means that a dandruff treatment is effective when it interrupts this process. If you stop inflammation, Malassezia overgrowth, and sebum buildup - whatever the original cause - you’ll stop the dandruff.

The coconut oil cure?

Dandruff can’t be cured. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it can be managed so effectively you’ll never think of flakes again. It’s just a matter of keeping the right personal care routine, using proven anti-dandruff products, and possibly making a few lifestyle tweaks. Much more on all of that in a moment. 

But first: you already have a jar of organic coconut oil sitting in your pantry. Does that stuff you’ve been baking with belong on your scalp or not?

Research shows coconut oil can be an effective moisturizer for the skin. When this is maintained over time, it may help prevent damage and infection.

Coconut oil for hair, skin & scalp

Coconut oil has gained its reputation as a health and beauty aid because of its distinct fat profile. It is an incredibly rich natural source for a type of saturated fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs for short, also called medium-chain fatty acids).

Lauric acid is the main MCT found in coconut oil. Others include caprylic acid and capric acid. Unrefined coconut oil, which is extracted from coconut meat without heating it, retains more of the natural medium-chain fatty acids and other beneficial compounds than refined coconut oil. (Virgin coconut oils are the same as unrefined, and extra virgin coconut oil is similarly minimally processed.)

Medium-chain fatty acids are processed differently by your body when you eat them than the long-chain triglycerides more common in most modern diets. (Long-chain fatty acids include vegetable oils like olive oil and soybean oil as well as most fats found in meat.) They are metabolized faster and can be used more readily as fuel, making them less likely to remain stored as excess fat in the body. 

But what about slathering coconut oil on your hair and skin? Topical use of coconut oil can be beneficial when used carefully. Here are some of the benefits:

Anti-microbial properties

Lauric and capric acid and other MCTs are known to have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties that can help fight skin infections and may promote healing of irritated or wounded skin. Clinical studies have supported their efficacy in helping fight conditions that can cause dandruff such as atopic dermatitis.

Anti-inflammatory powers

Virgin coconut oil can be used as an anti-inflammatory in some cases. Results from clinical studies have shown coconut oil to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties when applied to the skin. 

Moisturizing the skin

Research shows coconut oil can be an effective moisturizer for the skin. When this is maintained over time, it may help prevent damage and infection. 

Another study of atopic dermatitis patients showed coconut oil was particularly effective in moisturizing the scalp. Virgin coconut oil treatment increased hydration for the patients by preventing a process called transepidermal water loss. Basically, this is when the skin’s role as a barrier is weakened and moisture is lost through it. Coconut oil was more effective than mineral oil in strengthening the skin barrier and thus preventing moisture loss through it, providing more effective symptom relief. 

Protecting and strengthening hair

Studies have shown that coconut oil’s medium-chain triglycerides can penetrate the hair shaft in ways other oils can’t, thanks to their distinct structure, making coconut oil more effective in thickening hair and preventing protein loss than mineral and sunflower oils. 

The dangers of DIY

Given all of these benefits, you might be tempted to coat your locks or scalp in pure coconut oil. And why not? Coconut oil might address many scalp issues including infection, dry skin, and damaged hair.

Don’t do it! The DIY approach has real risks, and can even make your symptoms worse. Coconut oil in excess is known to clog pores in some people, and has reportedly led to hair loss when used in high concentrations. If your skin is already sensitive and irritated, or you have experienced some hair breakage from scratching your itchy scalp, rubbing full-strength coconut oil directly into your skin can be a recipe for disaster.

Coconut oil can offer many benefits for scalp and hair health…but only in the hands of a real chemist. Instead of tinkering with your own scalp chemistry, trust in a professionally formulated dandruff shampoo.

Coconut oil on its own is not sufficient to manage chronic dandruff. There are numerous ingredients that work together in an evidenced-based dandruff shampoo. Chief among them is Zinc Pyrithione, the workhorse of any effective anti-dandruff remedy, with powerful antifungal and antibacterial properties beyond coconut oil’s notable benefits. 

Kicking dandruff to the curb

You need a proven dandruff solution that harnesses the powerful anti-dandruff active ingredient Zinc Pyrithione along with the soothing powers of natural ingredients like coconut oil and lavender.

Since dandruff management is a matter of day-in, day-out routine, we think it’s important to have products that you can rely on to work effectively - and that you feel good about using. Learn more about how we keep your scalp flake-free, happy, and healthy.

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