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Food for hair

Dear Alice,

What is up with this new trend of putting food products like olive oil or avocado juice into hair? Is it more healthy than using shampoo?

Thanks,

Hair Freak

Dear Hair Freak,

Items that you might consider better suited for your plate have long been used in beauty and health care products. Whether purchased at a store or concocted in your kitchen, ingredients such as coconut oil have been shown to help prevent hair damage. However, when it comes to hair care, not all natural ingredients are created equal. It’s worth noting that there isn’t a clear distinction between natural and chemical-based products when it comes to hair health because just as hair types vary, so do definitions of healthy hair. For some, healthy hair could mean growth, while for others it could mean having shiny and easy to manage hair. In some cases, diet, genetics, and medical conditions may play a role, too. As for hair damage, that’s typically associated with breakage on one of the layers of the hair shaft (cuticle, cortex, medulla), most often caused by specific chemical treatments rather than cleansing products. If you have a specific hair or scalp concern, you might consider talking with a dermatologist (a doctor who specializes in hair, skin, and nails) or other health care provider about recommendations for ingredients to use or avoid.

If you're in the market for some food-based grooming products, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of natural versus chemical-based hair care. Natural products often use ingredients such as veggies, fruits, and grains because they’re packed with minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. These ingredients may have therapeutic effects on hair, nails, and skin, especially for those who are sensitive to the chemicals, dyes, and fragrances used in many mainstream products. People who choose to whip up their own homemade toiletries and cosmetics may be able to find a host of recipes online or at their local library or bookstore. Seeing what’s worked well for others may help to avoid any mishaps in the kitchen. For example, while coconut oil is known to smooth and protect tresses, research indicates that others such as mineral and sunflower oil can't claim the same effects. You might be able to find some of these natural products at your nearest drug store or supermarket. It’s key to refrigerate homemade products and use them within one to two days.

If you'd rather stick to pre-made products, you might try taking a quick look at labels and lists of ingredients. Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tightly regulates designation of products as "organic," this isn’t the case for products marketed as "natural," which may still contain chemicals and preservatives. Most people associate soap suds with a squeaky-clean mane, so many "natural" products still include chemicals, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, to get this effect. Some additives also help products last longer and are much cheaper to produce, allowing "non-natural" products to maintain lower prices than their flora-containing counterparts. It’s good to also mention that manufacturers aren’t required to list ingredients that make up any "fragrance" added to a product because they’re considered trade secrets. These fragrances could also contain ingredients that aren’t natural.

When it comes to hair care, the tall order of hair washing products may be best left to the experts. Shampooing is intended to cleanse the scalp by removing dirt, sweat, excess oil, and residue from products, while conditioning helps to reduce friction and static in order to make hair smoother, shinier, detangled and reduce pesky fly-aways. And some shampoos are formulated to treat specific hair and scalp woes such as dandruff and psoriasis. There has been some debate about the impacts of daily shampooing and conditioning, but there isn’t any conclusive evidence to show that it causes any damage to the hair. In fact, more often than not they help to prevent it. It’s also worth mentioning that hair textures may vary based on culture, sex, and age and may require different products and routines. For more information on shampooing best practices, you might be interested in the Go Ask Alice! Q&A How often to wash hair?.

All this to say, Hair Freak, there’s little evidence that putting food products in your hair is a healthier alternative to using "non-natural" hair care products. There’s also not enough research to support the hair benefits of taking certain vitamin supplements. Whether you decide to formulate your own recipes or carefully consider what’s in existing products — it's simply a matter of which you prefer. Nature is full of wonderful ingredients, but not all of them may be beneficial to your tresses.

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Last updated Jul 12, 2022
Originally published Jun 24, 2011

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