What sorts of oils and butters are best for your hair?

Depending upon where it is grown and the environmental conditions of that year, as well as soil quality, shea butter can vary significantly in its ratio of stearic acid to oleic acid. This will affect its melting point, and thus, its softness. If there is a lot more oleic acid relative to stearic acid in a particular batch, it will be a much softer and oily product, and will behave somewhat differently on the hair. Processing (methods of extraction, filtering, use of heat, hydrogenation) can also drastically affect the unsaturated oil composition, so if purchasing shea butter itself, carefully read the label so you are aware of the quality of butter you are getting. A pure shea butter contains no emulsifiers or perfumes, but is purely the mixture of fatty acids that were extracted from the fruit.

shea butter

Shea butter

Incorporation of shea butter into a conditioning product involves melting it and dissolving it into an emulsifier and then mixing that into the product. Although the butter is melted and mixed into a liquid, its mixture of fatty acids should remain intact (unless high heat was used, which is not typical). Therefore, it is still the same "butter", simply because the term butter is not actually very meaningful. The inherent molecular structure is unchanged.

It is also interesting to note that while coconut oil is comprised almost entirely of saturated fatty acids, it is still referred to as an oil, rather than a butter. This is due to the lower molecular weight of the major fatty acids in coconut oil, which give it a lower melting point; typically right around room temperature. This is another clue that the terms butter and oil are not always very precise or meaningful. For this reason, it is a good idea to look at the fatty acid content of a particular butter or oil you would like to try and to understand what sort of performance you might expect based upon its chemistry, rather than what it is called.

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Tonya McKay

Tonya McKay Becker is a curly-haired polymer scientist and cosmetic chemist whose academic and industrial research experience have provided her with expertise in the fundamentals and applications of polymer science and colloid chemistry. She has long had a fascination with the structure-property relationships of the complex solutions used in hair and skin care products, and how they interact with and impact these remarkable biological substrates. Ever curious, Tonya has dedicated herself for more than a decade to honing her expertise on the science of curly hair, how it differs from straight hair, and how product ingredients used on curly hair affect its health and beauty. Her passion for sharing this knowledge with others has led to her current career of educating people from all backgrounds who share an interest in this exciting field.

This was a great article...saving this under my favorites as a point of reference!!

Wonderful article. Little by little I'm learning how to deal with tempermental Fine, Porose 2B to 3B hair. Thank you.

Wow great article. This explains alot and helped me narrow done my product list. Thanks

Tonya, Wondeful article and just what I needed! As Diana said before me I will be re-reading and studying to figure out why my easy to maintain and moisturize hair 4a/b hair has become overly porous, thin, damaged and protein reliant and all without the use of heat or relaxers. Thanks for helping me take a big step in becoming knowledgeable in the care of my hair.

Phew!!!!!!! That is going to take some re-reading and studying!!! I"m curious why you didn't include Castor oil?? Thanks for this!!!