Q: What is the difference between lanolin and lanolin oil, and how might each affect my hair?
A: Lanolin is a very greasy material produced by the sebaceous glands of sheep. It acts as an excellent moisturizer for skin and hair and also functions as an effective water barrier. A byproduct of wool-gathering and refining, it is easily obtained and is a renewable resource. For this reason, lanolin has been used as an emollient in hand and body creams and hair products for many centuries. Many consider animal oils to be more compatible with human skin and hair than vegetable or mineral oils.
Lanolin is a mixture of fatty acids, wax esters, and a complex mixture of other organic compounds. It is classified as a wax (as opposed to an oil or fat), and is a solid at room temperature (melting point: 100-107°F). In its natural state, lanolin contains about 25-30% water by weight. When applied to skin or hair, it is very effective at penetrating the surface and enhancing moisture retention. Lanolin is also beneficial because it continues to absorb moisture from the air, and can thus act as a humectant for the skin or hair.
Lanolin is sometimes considered to be too thick and greasy to be used liberally on curly hair, as it can really weigh down the curls and create frizz, but this is really dependent upon the degree of curl. A person with wavy hair or only slightly curly hair may find it to be too much for them, while a person with extremely curly hair would find it very beneficial to their hair. Its unique and complex chemical composition should make it very easily removed from the hair with a gentle shampoo or conditioner wash.
Lanolin oil is a derivative of lanolin and is a liquid at room and body temperature. In this liquid state, lanolin oil is much easier to use in the manufacturing processes because it does not require temperatures to be elevated above 100°F. This saves time and money for the manufacturer as well as (presumably) the consumer. Lanolin oil should also be a somewhat lighter moisturizer than regular lanolin wax, but with many of the same beneficial properties.
In summary, lanolin is an excellent conditioning agent for both skin and hair, but consideration of hair type should be used when selecting products for hair. As a deep conditioning agent, used infrequently, probably all curly-haired people would benefit from a product containing lanolin (in the wax form). People with extremely curly hair (such as those with 3c, and the 4’s) can most likely use lanolin-containing products in their regular regime and enjoy soft, smooth hair without losing curl or gaining frizz. Those with wavy or slightly curly hair (such as 2a, 2b, 3a, and 3b type) may find products containing lanolin oil to have excellent performance. But they may not be able to routinely use products containing significant amounts of lanolin wax because they may be too heavy.