By Sherifat A. Ademola
MD Candidate, Class of 2022
Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University
Reviewed by Lynne Goldberg, MD
Is it safe to use aloe vera, castor oil, and coconut oil on your scalp? I heard oil causes clogged pores and can flare inflammation.
The use of topical alternative treatments for hair and scalp conditions continues to be an unsettled topic. Ingredients such as aloe vera, castor oil, and coconut oil are products that are growing in popularity, as their low cost and low side-effect profile make them easily coveted. Such gels and oils have been used for skin care and now are increasingly being used for hair loss treatment. The use of these products may not be new for some, but its utility for hair and scalp disorders still holds uncertainty for many. Exploring the benefits, safety concerns, and recommendations of these topical alternative treatments may help you decide if or which of these ingredients is right for you!
What is aloe vera and why is it used?
According to the National Institute of Health’s Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, aloe vera is a cactus-like plant that grows in hot, dry climates. When cut, the plant produces a gel-like substance. It is used topically for various skin conditions such as acnes, lichen planus, and burns. Aloe vera has been marketed to promote hair growth in patients with hair loss because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. It is also rich in minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. A small study published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment found that participants in the study found improvement in itchiness after using aloe vera. As far as their aid in hair growth, another small study in the Journal of Archives of Dermatological Research suggested that aloe vera had one of the highest hair-growth promoting activity. Lastly, with the various vitamin content in aloe vera, restoration of hair growth is promoted.
What are the risks of using aloe vera?
Despite the promising results of these studies, the research is still limited and ongoing. According to the NIH, aloe vera is well tolerated and safe to use, however reports of burning and itching after usage is not uncommon. In an article reviewed by dermatologist, Sara Perkins, MD, people should be aware of allergic risks and do a patch test prior to using aloe vera. Additionally, extra care should be taken if one is using steroidal creams in addition to aloe vera. Using these two products can cause dangerously high steroidal absorption levels.
What about castor oil? What is it and why is it used?
Castor oil is another alternative treatment that has been used for treatment of hair loss. Castor oil is a vegetable oil pressed from castor beans. Like aloe vera gel, castor oil is abundant in minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. What makes castor oil unique is its richness in ricinoleic acid, a key ingredient that helps moisturize the hair and scalp. A study in India suggested the use of herbal oils such as castor oil provides essential nutrients required to maintaining and promoting natural hair growth. Furthermore, a 2009 small experimental animal study suggested, that the use of castor oil along with other herbal oils results in a reduction in hair growth initiation time and an increase in hair length and count. While the results are perceived as promising, recent studies performed on human subjects remain limited. Currently, there are no studies or reports that scientifically confirm the benefits of castor oil for hair growth. Like many herbal oils, its growing use is largely motivated by anecdotal experiences.
What are the risks of using castor oil?
Castor oil is generally safe for hair use, but it is worth mentioning that side effects do occur. Like any other alternative treatments, irritation is likely and this a patch test prior to use is recommended. In addition to irritation, a 2017 case report revealed that the use of castor oil can cause acute hair matting (a condition in which hair becomes twisted and entangled). While this may be a rare side effect of castor oil use, it is important to provide transparency regarding the possible side effects that can occur. If you are considering adding castor oil to your hair regimen, weigh in on the previously mentioned advantages and disadvantages and discuss them with your dermatologist.
What is coconut oil and why is it used?
According to the NIH, coconut oil is extracted from mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm. It contains high amounts of fatty acids, vitamins and bioactive compounds. Mechanistically, studies have shown that compared to other oils, coconut oil has an ability to penetrate the hair shaft, resulting in improved hair absorption. This may decrease occurrences of hair breakage. Furthermore, a 2014 Indian review article found that coconut oil may decrease the rate of hair loss. As a natural nutrient, it is said to aid in the re-growth of damaged hair and provide nourishment to the scalp. Lastly, given it high fat content properties, coconut oil may help in scalp itching and flaking.
What are the risks of using coconut oil?
Coconut oil is generally safe to use on hair. However, compared to the other oils mentioned, coconut oil can cause build up in the hair and scalp. It is worth noting that, such side effects pose higher risks depending on hair type. For instance, coconut oil is not an ideal home remedy if you have coarse and brittle hair. The oil can build up in the scalp and block hair from receiving the moisture it needs. Typically, those with fine to medium shiny hair yield positive results. Lastly, with all topical oils, allergenic responses are likely. It is important to use small amount at a time during initial use to monitor for any reactions.
Gandhi , R. (2010, December 1). Aloe vera : A Potential Herb and its Medicinal Importance . https://www.jocpr.com/articles/aloe-vera–a-potential-herb-and-its-medicinal-importance.pdf.
Neetu, S. (2009, August 1). Development and Evaluation of Polyherbal Formulations for Hair Growth Activity. http://www.phcogfirst.com/sites/default/files/PJ_1_2_Development%20and%20Evaluation%20of%20Polyherbal…..pdf.
Davis, T. (2021, March 13). Is castor oil the secret to hair growth? ELLE. https://www.elle.com/beauty/hair/a32948617/castor-oil-for-hair/.
Herman, A., & Herman, A. P. (2017, July 10). Topically used herbal products for the treatment of hair loss: Preclinical and clinical studies. Archives of Dermatological Research. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00403-017-1759-7.
Maduri, V. R., Vedachalam, A., & Kiruthika, S. (2017). “Castor oil” – the culprit of acute hair felting. International journal of trichology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5596646/.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, August 1). Aloe Vera. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/aloe-vera.
Vala, G. S., & Kapadiya, P. K. (2014, October 1). Medicinal Benefits of Coconut Oil. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gambhirsinh-Vala-2/publication/280574942_Medicinal_Benefits_of_Coconut_Oil_A_Review_paper/links/55bb561b08ae092e965ed871/Medicinal-Benefits-of-Coconut-Oil-A-Review-paper.pdf.
Vardy, D., & Cohen, A. (n.d.). A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of an aloe VERA (A. Barbadensis) emulsion in the treatment OF seborrheic dermatitis. Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09546639909055904.