Coconut oil has gained a big following in natural beauty circles in recent years. This oil does have a significant list of benefits including the fact that it is readily available at many natural food stores, affordable, shelf stable, 100% natural and nontoxic, and not environmentally problematic. Books such as The Coconut Oil Miracle tout its extensive health benefits as an immune system support, weight loss aid, digestion and nutrition absorption aid and many other traits. A simple Amazon search pulls up over 10 guides to the benefits of coconut oil including one specifically dedicated to pets and another for oil pulling. I've personally found it to be fantastic for cooking and the flavor of virgin coconut oil makes a delectable popcorn topping for a Saturday evening movie at home. Combine it with a bit of truffle oil, salt, and onion powder and you've got a mouth party like you've never known before.
With all those delightful qualities you might be surprised to hear me say that in skincare coconut oil gives extremely mixed results. Coconut oil is used in a starring role for everything from a makeup remover to a general moisturizer, and is frequently one of the first natural oils people experiment with for home recipes and DIY beauty. Unfortunately for very dry skin and acne prone skin the results of coconut oil often skew towards breakouts and increased dryness.
A quick search of blogs on coconut oil used for beauty purposes for anecdotal evidence shows a lot of confused results in the comments sections. Some people are brilliantly happy with their new discovery and others are quizzical, inquiring if their uncomfortable situations post-use are normal. Due to what I've seen over years in natural beauty working with clients coconut oil is not one of my top choices for picky skin types. As a formulator I use it only when blended down with other ingredients, and I make sure to provide many recipes that are completely free of this oil for individuals that have adverse reactions.
Let's be clear - am I saying coconut oil is unhealthy? Heck no! But its unique chemistry is causing a wide range of effects on people's skin. Let's get an up close and personal picture of just what's going on.
The chemistry of coconut oil
Coconuts grow on coconut palm trees and once harvested the coconut is broken open, the coconut "meat" or copra is dried, and then pressed hydraulically at 100 to 130 degrees F to extract the oil. Per tablespoon the resulting oil has 117 calories, 0 grams of protein, 13.6 grams of fat (11.8 saturated, 0.8 monounsaturated and 0.2 polyunsaturated) and 0 grams of carbohydrate (0 grams of fiber and 0 grams of sugar). It provides negligible vitamins or minerals. For further reference see the USDA National Nutrient Database.
Coconut oil is largely made up of saturated fat. Saturated fats are so called because they have all their Carbon to Hydrogen bond areas occupied by strong single bonds. Every bond site is "saturated" with as strong a bond as it needs - its dance card is full in layman's terms. The fact that the fat molecule already has Hydrogen atoms in very stable arrangements also means the oil is not very reactive with oxygen, making saturated fats relatively stable for long term storage. In general saturated fats have been thought to be not the ideal dietary fat source. Polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in chia seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and other seeds have generally been preferred because they were supposed not to cause complications with vascular system health in the way that saturated fats supposedly did.
This general rule is likely what has caused the cheer squad to come out in such force on behalf of coconut oil. The plethora of PR fanfare that coconut oil is actually healthy has mostly overcome the previous conception that it was saturated fat and therefore verboten. However, life and chemistry love to throw us curve balls and coconut oil, despite being saturated fat, operates uniquely in the body.
Fats are more specifically known as fatty acids. As shown in the picture above the molecule is numerous Carbon atoms chained together. There are short, medium and long chain fatty acids. Coconut oil has an unusually high amount of medium-chain fatty acids, which are harder for our bodies to convert into stored fat and easier for them to burn off. This is likely the source of the metabolic boost or weight loss effect from coconut oil consumption. The body simply burns the provided fuel more efficiently.
Coconut oil fatty acid composition
The saturated fats in coconut oil break down into the following maximum percentages of fatty acids:
Caprylic, C8: 9%
Decanoic, C10: 10%
Lauric, C12: 52%
Myristic, C14: 19%
Palmitic, C16: 11%
Medium chain fatty acids have 6 to 12 Carbon atoms, putting a solid 70% of coconut oil fatty acid content into the medium chain length category. Coconut oil, along with palm kernal oil, is one of the few truly rich sources of lauric acid. It's as exotic as the coconut itself to those of us from landlocked, non-tropical territory where we wistfully look out our dreary windows for months of gray drizzle. (Is it spring yet???) Otherwise lauric acid is rare in nature so you won't be getting it from any other oils in your favorite facial products.
Lauric acid has been shown in studies to significantly penetrate the skin and actually can accumulate in the stratum corneum, your handy dandy top layer of skin cells. This high penetration ability likely accounts for the extremely lightweight feel of coconut oil that people love. It doesn't remain on the surface and feel "oily", it soaks in quickly. In a 2004 study comparing the moisturizing effects of petroleum based mineral oil versus coconut oil for skin hydration both did improve skin's overall hydration level for 34 test subjects. These subjects had negative allergy patch-test reactions to the oil, though, so the study chose people that already had neutral reactions to the oil meaning anyone that showed negative reactions was left out of the study group.
Lauric acid also has some other nifty properties. It has been shown through in vitro studies to be antimicrobial, specifically working against the propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) bacteria that is responsible for some acne breakouts. In fact it showed stronger antimicrobial activity than benzoyl peroxide, the standard over-the-counter acne treatment that plagued all of us in our awkward teen years. (For anyone currently there, I'm sorry!) Virgin coconut oil has also been found to help wounds heal faster in animal studies and boost antioxidant content in the skin. The major antioxidants present in virgin coconut oil have been documented to be ferulic acid and p-coumaric acid. These compounds do scavenge for free radicals, which can help prevent sun and age related damage to skin.
This would seem to be a huge boon for skin! Absorption and anti-acne benefit all rolled into one! Unfortunately it's not that simple.
"If you think it's simple, then you have misunderstood the problem."- Bjarne Soustrup
And the problem is your skin. It's complex and different for each person. Different cell turnover rates, different pore sizes, different microbiological populations, different immune responses.... It's all skin and yet all varies. You are composed uniquely even if coconut oil is generally the same stuff applied person to person to person. We so love a standardized solution in our mass produced world these days. But if there's something I've learned in working with the human body it's that there is no one solution for every person in any aspect of healing. You have to deal with each situation uniquely.
Coconut oil can cause acne breakouts
Unfortunately along with all the delightful aspects of coconut oil come's the inevitable downside. (dunh dunh dunh!) Coconut oil has traditionally been given a comedogenicity rating of 4 on a scale of 0 to 5 with 5 being the highest. Comedogenic means pore-clogging and likely to cause acne comedones, AKA your common household pimple. The old model of determining comedogenicity standardized in 1979 by Albert Kligman, MD, Phd involved application of the substance to the insides of rabbit ears. Newer comedogenic testing models as of this study in 1982 involving human subjects have been used as well, but at that time the rabbit's ear method had been so far found to be more sensitive than human models. (Blissoma does not support animal testing in any way, has not commissioned any animal tests, and does not use suppliers that participate in animal testing procedures. All comedogenicity testing has been done by unrelated organizations) The animal model of rating substances for clogging potential has been renounced by researchers as of 2007, stating that the methods of acnegenesis are complex and no one factor has been identified as an absolute influence. The extraction method and refining of an oil can also contribute to its unique makeup and action on the skin, with virgin coconut oil being the top choice for antioxidant content and possible non-comedogenicity on skin.
All this still does not negate the fact that many people experience acne breakouts from coconut oil. For anecdotal evidence read the comments section on the Love Vitamin's article on coconut oil. While some individuals are very happy and able to use coconut oil many readers repeatedly report that coconut oil caused increasing and persistent breakouts to their face and bodies, relenting only when they dropped it from their routines.
This makes coconut oil a very dicey choice for acne skin types. The lauric acid content fights bacteria but the total oil may clog pores depending on the user. The only way to know how it would affect you is to try it, and some people whose acne is under control aren't willing to play that kind of roulette with the tender harmony they may have achieved. Some people even experience exacerbated breakouts when simply consuming coconut oil as part of their diet.
Coconut oil can cause dry skin
Despite the fact that coconut oil is definitely an oil, and as stated above it does absorb into the skin many people also report that coconut oil increases their skin's dryness. This seems completely counterintuitive, but again, plenty of comments threads read like this one that states "coconut oil causes sandpaper hands". Yep.
How could this be? One possible explanation is that the oil's absorption actually causes more problems than it solves for some people. Your skin produces its own sebum to moisturize the skin. Applying oil to the skin actually communicates with your skin and can modify your sebum production. By applying more oil you communicate to your skin to produce less because it is already oil-rich. You can see the opposite of this effect when people use too many astringents and strip their skin of oil repeatedly, then causing overproduction of oil resulting in a slick like the Gulf spill of 2010 right on their face. With oil and faces the right amount of the right type is like the heavens open up and angels sing - sublime! But the wrong one for your skin type can definitely throw things off.
Coconut oil may be causing a slowing of natural sebum production while virtually disappearing from the surface of the skin through absorption. Your skin needs a layer of oils (lipids) on the surface to protect it from environmental stressors and transepidermal water loss - the evaporation of your valuable hydration from inside the skin. With an oil that is too absorbent it may be sending the wrong, oil-rich signals to skin and then by absorbing you have nothing left to protect you on the surface. Whoops! Skin is then left feeling like it's having one of those dreams about being naked in public. Not so pleasant.
In my personal experience I've done skin consultations for two sisters whose reactions to coconut oil were totally different. One could use it for everything and it worked beautifully for her. She was as happy as the Pointer Sisters in "I'm So Excited." Sister #2 reported that her skin on coconut oil was dry, uncomfortable, and even itchy. She had to stop using it because of how it affected her. And that seems to be the trend for results with this oil - half happy, half not.
Coconut oil has very low nutritional value for skin
As stated earlier coconut oil also has basically no vitamin or mineral content. It's fats flying solo. I've seen blog posts claiming it has "high Vitamin E content" but that claim is not substantiated. It may be they were confused by the stability of coconut oil, as many oils have longer shelf lives because of Vitamin E. Coconut oil is stable because of its saturated bonds. There are fat soluble vitamins that do occur in other oils in concentration and oils like rosehip have natural Vitamin A content, sea buckthorn has a multitude of bright orange carotenoids, cranberry and raspberry seed oils have natural Vitamin E. Other oils also have compounds known as phytosterols which help the skin with water retention and barrier recovery - excellent for irritated skin! And while coconut oil does have antioxidant compounds there are oils with much denser antioxidant loads such as tamanu.
Coconut oil is an allergen for some people
Coconut is also an allergen for some people who have tree nut allergy problems. Not all people who are allergic to tree nuts are allergic to coconut, and coconut is technically classified as a fruit. This still doesn't stop some people from having reactions. As a disclaimer to this point it is possible to be allergic to practically anything, but I suspect that some breakouts related to coconut may actually be an inflammation issue and not just from pore-clogging.
Why use coconut oil for skincare and natural beauty?
As a formulator I do include coconut oil in some products. It's stable and can be heated without damaging the oil which is valuable for creating emulsions. I feel it's a neutral base ingredient for most people, doing probably no harm but also probably not offering extensive benefit, and the problematic aspects are generally minimized by blending it with other ingredients. For those of you interested in DIY natural beauty it is readily available at any natural food store and you don't have to worry about storing it any special way. Plus, it's affordable and for individuals whose budget doesn't allow purchasing a luxury beauty product this at least allows for a multipurpose, no toxin, flexible treatment.
Because of the possibility of mixed reactions and lack of vitamin content I keep it to a small portion of my recipes and offer many recipes that do not rely on it. That way people whose skin doesn't tolerate it well have options.
While life itself is miraculous, fascinating, and filled with abundant blessings there are basically no perfect substances. Everything is subjective. When you hear something touted as being "good for everything" I'd take a moment to really scrutinize. Very little is chemically good for everything. Most substances are good for specific purposes. Chemistry itself is specific.
Overall most people can use coconut oil for a variety of purposes and achieve lovely results inside and out. If you are prone to acne or have skin that is prone to dryness then there are other oils I'd recommend over coconut oil. I know it seems enticing to have one oil for so many purposes but if you have finicky skin it is likely best to eat your coconut oil and consider applying other oils to your skin. Sometimes for the best beauty results you have to look beyond the grocery store shelf.