Coconut oil in skin care
Loaded with beneficial compounds like flavonoids and occlusive saturated fats, coconut oil is one of the most popular natural skin care ingredients on the market.
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil, (Cocos nucifera), is an extract of the coconut used in multiple forms across food and skin care industries.
Coconut oil can be refined or unrefined; classifications are based on the processing of coconut oil and its resulting fatty acid concentrations and properties.
What is unrefined coconut oil?
Unrefined coconut oil is an extract pressed from coconut meat, either alongside or separated from the coconut's water. The process is called "wet pressing" with coconut water, and "dry pressing" without coconut water. (3)
No further processing is performed on unrefined coconut oil.
Unrefined coconut oil maintains the fragrance and flavor of coconuts, so is used in food products as well as skin care products.
What is refined coconut oil?
Refined coconut oil has been processed to change its saturated fatty acid concentration through pressure, chemical treatments, and application of heat.
Refinement of coconut oil results in a smoother, less solid product at room temperature product than unrefined coconut oil.
Refined coconut oil is more shelf stable than unrefined coconut oil, but contains fewer beneficial fatty acids.
Refined coconut oil is odorless and flavorless.
Benefits of unrefined coconut oil in skin care
Unrefined coconut oil is made of different kinds of medium chain saturated fatty acids that hydrate and smooth the skin.
Unrefined coconut oil maintains a coconut fragrance and flavor.
It is safe to use on skin for adults or for children as it is non-toxic, but it can cause clogged pores and acne.
Unrefined coconut oil features many skin benefits(4) :
speeds wound healing
prevent stretch marks
Unrefined coconut oil is an occlusive ingredient; it is great at preventing trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), loss of moisture from the skin due to evaporation.
The moisturizing and fatty acid properties of unrefined coconut oil have been shown to greatly assist in eczema treatments (5) and can help repair the skin barrier when combined with cholesterol and ceramides.
Unrefined coconut oil inhibits the growth of certain skin bacteria like Staphylococcus. (9)
As unrefined coconut oil is rich and fatty acids, but comedogenic, it can be considered bad for use in acne while otherwise good in skin barrier repair products.
Unrefined coconut oil has even been shown to aid with healing on certain kinds of wounds on the skin of albino rats. (1)
Virgin coconut has a strong antioxidant capacity which may help slow skin aging. (21)
For those reasons, unrefined virgin coconut oil is considered a highly beneficial ingredient in skin care products unless you have acne or oily skin.
Benefits of refined coconut oil
Refined coconut oil has had a huge amount of its beneficial fatty acids removed and its texture is much thinner as a result.
It is also less effective in hydrating skin and restoring lipids to the skin barrier than unrefined coconut oil is.
Refined coconut oil is not comedogenic as many of the pore-clogging fatty acids have been processed out.
Refined coconut oil products have a less creamy or greasy texture than unrefined coconut oils.
It is also odorless sand flavorless.
Refined coconut oil has a much longer shelf life than unrefined coconut oil.
What kind of fat is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is primarily composed of saturated fatty acids, with a small concentration of unsaturated fatty acids.
Unrefined coconut oil hardens into a solid at room temperature, and has an oily, sometimes inelegant texture.
Coconut oil comes from a plant, but is not an essential oil.
Since it contains primarily saturated fats, it is not a dry oil.
Though coconut oils share some physical characteristics with mineral oils, they contain completely distinct fatty acids and perform different functions in skin care.
What kinds of fatty acids are in coconut oil?
The most significant fatty acid in coconut oils by concentration and uniqueness is lauric acid.
Lauric acid is easily absorbed by phospholipid bilayers and is easily processed by the liver. Out of all saturated fatty acids examined in one study, lauric acid demonstrated the smallest contribution to fat development in the body. (10) This means that using coconut oil poses no threat to your cholesterol or blood pressure levels.
The fatty acids found in coconut oils are helpful in hydrating the skin and fighting topical, infection causing bacteria.
Lauric acid penetrates the skin through just the first few layers, while the rest of the coconut oil mostly hydrates the surface of the skin, preventing transepidermal water loss.
Plant based oils all have different fatty acid compositions that vary drastically. Just because plant oils come from plants does not mean they perform the same functions in skin care as one another.
Here is a table comparing concentrations of five fatty acids present in unrefined coconut oil with the concentrations of those same fatty acids in two other oils: evening primrose oil and sunflower oil.
Notice how coconut oil contains at least two fatty acids that the other two plants to not contain at all, but have completely different concentrations of the fatty acids they do have in common.
Dangers of coconut oil in skin care
The dangers of coconut oil are mainly allergies or improper use in your skin care regimen.
Coconut oils are considered extremely safe, with an EWG rating score of "1," the second best score after "verified."
Coconut oils are free from many common causes of concern; they are sustainably sourced, useful in skin care, and have not been shown to have dangerous adverse effects.
Side effects of coconut oil in skin care
Overuse of occlusive ingredients like coconut oils can result in an excess of moisture on the face, which can lead to a change in microbiome on the skin.
The antimicrobial effects of coconut oil also affect the microbiome.
Use of unrefined coconut oil has a chance of clogging pores on acne prone skin.
Use of refined coconut oil on skin has a chance of dehydrating the skin barrier as it lacks many hydrating fatty acids.
Problems with using coconut oil on the skin:
Holds dirt, sebum, and sunscreen on the skins surface and may push these into the hair follicle
Is coconut oil comedogenic?
Refined coconut oil has been chemically treated to lose its fragrances and to modify thickness by removing many of the saturated fats from the oil.
As a result, refined coconut oil may not be comedogenic. (8)
To be safe- if you get clogged pores and/ or are acne prone, do not use coconut oil on your skin unless the skin care product has been shown to be noncomedogenic. The word "noncomedogenic" will be on the skin care label if this study has been done.
Is refined coconut oil safe for use in skin care?
Refined coconut oil is a very common ingredient in skin care products.
Refined coconut oil is safe in skin care as long as you do not have a severe dry skin condition.
Refined coconut oil doesn't have many of the beneficial fatty acids unrefined coconut oil has that are needed to hydrate the skin, which means improper use can result in damage to the skin barrier.
Refined coconut oil usually dos not cause comedones.
Is unrefined coconut oil safe in skin care products?
Unrefined coconut oil, also called virgin coconut oil, is safe in skin care products as long as you are neither allergic to coconut oil nor acne prone.
It is extremely common in skin care products.
Acne-prone skin may develop comedones from unrefined coconut oil.
Otherwise, it is a completely safe and even beneficial ingredient in skin care products.
Does coconut oil affect the microbiome?
Yes, coconut oil has a big effect on the skin's microbiome.
About 50% of the fatty acids in unrefined coconut oil are lauric acid.
Monolaurin is a monoglyceride derived from lauric acid that has well documented antimicrobial activity.
Monolaurin from coconut oil has been shown to kill Propionibacterium acnes, Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermidis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Proteus vulgaris, and Bacillus subtilis(19) and to decrease levels of Cutibacterium acnes. (20)
Coconut oil for specific conditions
Coconut oil is used in the treatments of many conditions because of its unique valuable fatty acid composition and occlusive nature.
Does coconut oil treat acne or make it worse?
There is a lot of confusion, discussion, and varying advice about if coconut oil causes acne breakouts or if it helps clear pimples on the skin.
This is because the skin care product label only contains the INCI name Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil and does not state if the oil is refined or unrefined.
So some cosmetics with coconut oil on the label are good for acne while others are almost guaranteed to cause an acne flare.
There may also be coconut oil extracts in the product rather than virgin coconut oil that has all the fatty acids. These forms of coconut oil all act differently on the skin and have varying effects on acne.
Unrefined coconut oil is comedogenic so it is not recommended for acne-prone skin
Refined coconut oil is non-comedogenic and safe for use in acne-prone skin types if used properly in your custom skin care regimen.
Refined coconut oil and coconut oil extracts without comedogenic fatty acids are good for acne if they contain monolaurin. (19)
Monolaurin decreases levels of acne-causing bacteria called Cutibacterium acnes.
The skin care brand VMV Hypoallergenics contains extracts of coconut oil that are not comedogenic and are safe to use in acne-prone skin.
(They have had supply issues during covid so some of their products are out of stock.)
Many of these products contain monolaurin.
These are our the best face creams with coconut oil but take the quiz and follow our suggestions to find the best products for your skin type.
Coconut oil for eczema?
Moisturizers containing occlusive ingredients like coconut oils are used commonly in skin care to hold moisture or soothing ingredients against the skin.
Unrefined coconut oil might be good for use in eczema depending on your skin type. It contains high concentrations of fatty acids like lauric acid that have been proven to treat eczema. (3)
Refined coconut oil has far fewer fatty acids and is less hydrating and reparative to the skin barrier. This kind of coconut oil is not recommended for eczema treatments.
Some of the best other oils for treating eczema have high concentrations of anti-inflammatory fatty acids like linoleic acid. Some oils with high concentrations of linoleic fatty acids are:
Coconut oil for psoriasis?
There are many effective treatments for psoriasis that contain coconut oils or similar saturated fats for their hydrating, protective properties.
Layering your coconut oil products in particular ways with other products can help you control the absorption rate of ingredients into your skin.
Coconut oil for hair care
Coconut oil is a good ingredient in hair care because it contains fatty acids that bind with and hydrate hair.
It has very high concentrations of lauric acid, which is very good in hair care products for dry or frizzy hair. (2).
One study shows that between coconut, mineral, and sunflower oils, coconut made the largest impact in reparative hair care.
Coconut oil was able to bind the proteins in hair strands more effectively than the other oils, making an appreciable positive impact in the hair health of subjects.
Which kinds of skin care products use coconut oil?
Coconut oil can be used in any product that needs a thick occlusive, a smooth emollient, or a safe natural oil based ingredient.
Sunscreens often contain coconut oils to keep skin hydrated, but coconut oil alone does not provide sufficient SPF to prevent UV damage, and should be combined with sunscreen ingredients.
Moisturizers often use coconut oils for their combined antibacterial, hydrating, and occlusive properties.
Cleansers with coconut oil use it to hold exfoliating or otherwise cleansing ingredients against the skin and to eliminate surface bacteria. These leave a fatty acid residue on the skin after rinsing.
Serums with coconut oil could be used for antiaging in combination with retinoids because they also have antioxidant properties good for anti-aging regimens.
Antiaging creams such as retinoids may contain coconut oil.
Skin lightening creams may contain coconut extracts but these are not the best types of products to use to lighten skin because they are high in saturated fatty acids.
Which are the best skin care products with coconut oil?
The best coconut oil product for you depends on your Baumann Skin Type and personal skin conditions.
Here are some of our favorite products with coconut oils, look for your hexagon to see which products are right for you!
Best scientific references and peer reviewed articles on the use of coconut oils in skin care products:
- Nevin, K. G., & Rajamohan, T. (2010). Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Skin pharmacology and physiology, 23(6), 290-297.
- Rele, A. S., & Mohile, R. B. (2003). Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. Journal of cosmetic science, 54(2), 175-192.
- Evangelista, M. T. P., Abad‐Casintahan, F., & Lopez‐Villafuerte, L. (2014). The effect of topical virgin coconut oil on SCORAD index, transepidermal water loss, and skin capacitance in mild to moderate pediatric atopic dermatitis: a randomized, double‐blind, clinical trial. International journal of dermatology, 53(1), 100-108.
- Hassan, S. M. A. (2020). Anti-inflammatory and Anti-proliferative Activity of Coconut Oil against Adverse Effects of UVB on Skin of Albino Mice. Jordan Journal of Biological Sciences, 13(3).
- Chew, Y. L. (2019). The beneficial properties of virgin coconut oil in management of atopic dermatitis. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 13(25), 24.
- Dayrit, F. M., Dimzon, I. K. D., Valde, M. F., Santos, J. E. R., Garrovillas, M. J. M., & Villarino, B. J. (2011). Quality characteristics of virgin coconut oil: Comparisons with refined coconut oil. Pure and Applied Chemistry, 83(9), 1789-1799.
- Marina, A. M., Che Man, Y. B., Nazimah, S. A. H., & Amin, I. (2009). Chemical properties of virgin coconut oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society, 86, 301-307.
- Liu, R., Guo, X., Cheng, M., Zheng, L., Gong, M., Chang, M., ... & Wang, X. (2019). Effects of chemical refinement on the quality of coconut oil. Journal of food science and technology, 56, 3109-3116.
- Widianingrum, D. C., Noviandi, C. T., & Salasia, S. I. O. (2019). Antibacterial and immunomodulator activities of virgin coconut oil (VCO) against Staphylococcus aureus. Heliyon, 5(10), e02612.
- Dayrit, F. M. (2015). The properties of lauric acid and their significance in coconut oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society, 92, 1-15.
- Harris I, Hoppe U. Lanolins. In Loden M, Maibach H, eds. Dry Skin and Moisturizers. Loden M, Maibach H, eds. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2000, p. 259.
- Proserpio G. Lanolides: emollients or moisturizers? Cosmet Toilet. 1978; 93:45-48.
- Kligman AM. The myth of lanolin allergy. Contact Dermatitis. 1998;39(3):103-7.
- Boonchai W, Iamtharachai P, Sunthonpalin P. Occupational allergic contact dermatitis from essential oils in aromatherapists. Contact Dermatitis. 2007;56(3):181-2.
- Bleasel N, Tate B, Rademaker M. Allergic contact dermatitis following exposure to essential oils. Australas J Dermatol. 2002;43(3):211-3.
- DiNardo JC. Is mineral oil comedogenic? J Cosmet Dermatol. 2005;4(1):2-3.
- Blanken R, van Vilsteren MJ, Tupker RA, Coenraads PJ. Effect of mineral oil and linoleic-acid-containing emulsions on the skin vapour loss of sodium-lauryl-sulphate-induced irritant skin reactions. Contact Dermatitis. 1989;20(2):93-7.
- Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM. A randomized double-blind controlled trial comparing extra virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for mild to moderate xerosis. Dermatitis. 2004;15(3):109-16.
- Lin, T. K., Zhong, L., & Santiago, J. L. (2017). Anti-inflammatory and skin barrier repair effects of topical application of some plant oils. International journal of molecular sciences, 19(1), 70.
- Kreidel, M. K., & Jhaveri, M. (2021). Introduction to Essential Oils and Essential Oil Processing. Integrative Dermatology: Practical Applications in Acne and Rosacea, 99-122.
- Marina, A. M., Che Man, Y. B., Nazimah, S. A. H., & Amin, I. (2009). Antioxidant capacity and phenolic acids of virgin coconut oil. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 60(sup2), 114-123.