I have a confession–and you might get a little bit mad at me after you read this: I absolutely CRINGE every time I see someone recommend coconut oil for skincare online. Especially when I see it recommended topically for someone with acne prone skin.
You see it everywhere too, don’t you? The majority of health and wellness websites and publications out there recommend coconut oil for a myriad of things–and I’m not talking about just as a baking substitution (I actually have a blog post about that myself!) or as a skincare ingredient. I’ve seen articles and heard from ‘experts’ that coconut oil can do everything from protect skin from the sun, fight fungal infections, help you lose weight, draw out toxins from your mouth through oil pulling, and even make gray hair grow back its original color. It’s really the most common panacea ingredient out there in the world of green beauty and wellness.
The truth? These results don’t happen for most people.
Of course it’s not black and white–it depends on the type of coconut oil you’re using, as well as your skin type.
Don’t worry, I’m not telling you to toss your jar of coconut oil in the trash–I still cook and bake with it often, and it does have many benefits. But I want to talk about what you can really expect to get from using coconut oil for skincare. Here’s the scoop.
Oily skin: beware!
If you have acne prone skin or are prone to clogged pores, coconut oil is not your skincare ingredient soulmate. Because of its large molecular size, it doesn’t get completely absorbed for many people with already oilier skin. When an emollient ingredient (whether a carrier oil, natural butter, wax, or petrochemical) sits on the surface of the skin without being absorbed, it forms what’s known as an occlusive barrier, which keeps your skin from breathing and may hinder other important skin functions. This may lead to breakouts for many people.
While studies that determine comedogenicity of a topical ingredient are largely outdated and based on animal experiments in simulated environments with unnatural levels of exposure, we do know that different oils work differently depending on a person’s individual skin and body chemistry. While many studies may point to antimicrobial and soothing effects of coconut oil in theory, they don’t translate to real results for many real people due to its slow absorption.
While there are numerous oils I prefer over coconut for oilier, or clog-prone skin, two that I’ve found to be student and client favorites are grapeseed and jojoba. These are easily absorbed by the skin, and are less likely to form an occlusive barrier. Grapeseed in particular works well for those prone to acne because it is high in linoleic acid, which has been shown to help with acne breakouts. I know it sounds too good to be true–an oil that moisturizes AND reduces breakouts. Jojoba is one of my personal favorites, and is known to be very similar to our skin’s own sebum (the oil produced by the skin’s oil–sebaceous–glands), thus it absorbs very readily. Jojoba oil is also far more shelf stable than fractionated coconut oil for topical skincare and aromatherapy preparations.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, using coconut oil for skincare still may not work for you.
Earlier I mentioned that some people use coconut for its drawing properties, as an oral cleansing ingredient. This drawing effect also happens on the skin, which may benefit some people, but if you’re someone with dry or sensitive skin, this may perpetuate dryness and even lead to irritation and scaliness.
Learn from the past: don’t overuse!
Tree nut allergies and sensitivities are becoming more common now due to overuse. They’re in just about everything! I think about phenomena like gluten intolerance, which affects such a large percentage of the population today. You could use the argument that the wheat today is different from the wheat 100 years ago due to the prevalence of glyphosate and other toxicants leading to increased body burden–however, gluten itself, in one form or another, is in just about every processed food as an inexpensive way for food manufacturers to meet protein requirements. We know that processed food consumption is higher than ever before in history, so I think it’s logical to say that too much is just too much.
The same thing is happening with nuts in general (the dairy-free trend is largely responsible for all the processed nut food products in our food supply now–even our “healthy” food supply). Our bodies aren’t used to this many nuts in the diet. If you think of the way of predecessors ate, nut trees were probably few and far between. They didn’t have orchards of them, and they certainly weren’t eating them 365 days a year. (I feel like there’s someone out there reading this who is doing the Whole30 diet and just hating me, because roasted almonds are probably the treat they’re looking forward to.)
Anyhow, many scientists agree that eating some nuts is healthy, and some nut oils and butters do benefit the skin topically. But because so many companies are now using coconut oil or coconut oil derivatives such as coco glucoside, decyl glucoside, caprylic acid, caprylic/capric triglyceride, sodium laureth sulfate, just to name a few–as an ingredient in their products (whether heavily processed or not), we all have to be careful not to overdo it. Coconuts are considered tree nuts, and are not always labeled as such, which may lead to severe irritant and allergic reactions either from the whole ingredient, or one of its derivatives.
Virgin vs. fractionated coconut oil for skincare
You may have been using coconut oil on your skin and getting great results. If that’s the case, you might not need to change a thing. But do make sure you’re using virgin coconut oil, which receives the smallest amount of processing.
Fractionated coconut oil undergoes heat, chemical processing, or pressing to yield a coconut oil that is liquid at room temperature (virgin coconut oil solidifies below 76 degrees F) and thus easier to incorporate into formulations. It may be further refined to remove impurities. One drawback to this is that through the fractionation process, you lose much of the lauric acid, which is key to coconut oil’s benefits such as its microbial properties.
Not surprisingly, a study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that virgin coconut oil had a higher antioxidant capacity than coconut that had been processed or refined.
Now I know fractionated coconut oil is more popular and user friendly as a carrier oil for skincare and to dilute essential oils, but trust me and get the good stuff–organic, cold pressed virgin coconut oil–if you’re going to use it at all!
Here’s a place where we have some good evidence for coconut oil’s effectiveness. As mentioned, lauric acid in coconut oil has antimicrobial properties. When I say antimicrobial, it essentially means anti-anything-small.
There’s one study that testified to coconut oil’s ability to reduce fungus–specifically strains of candida. The study measured its effectiveness against a few different strains of candida, which had varying levels of responsiveness. Overall, coconut oil was determined to be an effective anti-fungal agent. Still, check with your health provider, because not all fungi are the same!
Still hoping for coco-nutty miracles?
While coconut oil does show evidence of antimicrobial activity, and may work well as a moisturizer, let’s keep expectations in check. Expecting it to make your gray hair turn back to that color of blonde you achieved that summer you worked as a lifeguard is a little overly optimistic.
And we’re not even going to get into the sun protection thing here (but we can talk about it HERE), but don’t under any circumstances rely solely on coconut oil for sun protection.
It’s easy to get excited about natural ‘cures’ or ingredients that seem to just do everything. But remember that marketing money has turned wheatgrass into a something people order shots of, has turned acai into a magic berry, and has people sprinkling turmeric on their food and praying it will make them invincible.
It’s not that these foods aren’t healthy and magical in their own right, it’s just that they’re not the ONE THING that will fix everything. They have some compounds that bring benefits to the body, but they don’t work miracles, and overusing them can cause problems.
In skincare we see the same thing, the same touting of ingredients that are better than the rest.
So if you applied coconut oil this morning thinking it would make your cheeks rosy or your eyes brighter or your wrinkles completely disappear, I get it. And if it works for you, that’s great! But if you’re one of the many people (and I hear stories from people like this all the time) that bought a magical product containing coconut oil–even that special type of coconut oil that’s supposed to NOT clog pores (again, this is marketing, people) but you experienced a breakout, redness, or scaly, itchy rash–you’re not alone. And there’s nothing wrong with your skin. It just means that your skin (and perhaps your diet) needs something other than coconut oil to be healthy.
Want to learn more about using the right DIY ingredients for your skin?
If you want to learn how to use the right oils and other natural ingredients for your skin, you can check out my free online skincare class. I’m not here to crush coconut oil dreams, I just want people out there to know how to use oils to make their skin seriously glow. Click HERE to sign up!
Tell me your coconut oil story:
Is coconut oil your friend? Or are you one of the many who react to coconut oil in skincare? Please share in the comments!