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Is coconut oil good for skin, really?

You’ve heard that coconut oil has amazing skin and hair benefits. But then you’ve also heard that coconut oil is comedone heaven and that you should avoid using it at all costs. So is coconut oil good for skin, really?

Coconut oil is one of those ingredients that’s ever so divisive. Given the entrenched positions on both sides, it’s often hard to work out whether it should go into the love or hate drawer.

I’ve decided to take a closer look at coconut oil and see whether this widely used skin care ingredient is nature’s miracle, as many claim it to be.

Coconuts are associated with tropical islands, pure white sand, azure water and gentle sea breezes. This makes for great marketing. But marketing and science are often at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Coconuts have been used for centuries for their health benefits, both as a food source and as a skin healer. It’s even claimed that coconut water is identical to human blood plasma and can be injected directly into the bloodstream, but this is untrue. Coconut water has electrolytes and therefore has the edge over water when it comes to hydration. But, even though coconut water is great to drink, it’s not a safe substitute for regular IV saline.

Coconut oil in skin care

But what about coconut oil in skin care?

Coconut oil is the fat that’s extracted from raw coconuts or dried coconut flakes. Like other fats, it’s emollient and can be applied directly to the skin or used in skin care formulations. It’s claimed that coconut oil can moisturise, soften, soothe, heal and protect the skin. Some even claim it can treat skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, as well as reduce redness.

Coconut oil does contain fatty acids, specifically medium-chain fatty acids, predominantly Lauric Acid, a type of saturated fat. These fatty acids represent about 65% of its composition.

Fatty acid composition of coconut oil

  1. Lauric Acid        49%
  2. Myristic Acid     18%
  3. Caprylic Acid     8%
  4. Capric Acid        7%
  5. Palmitic Acid     8%
  6. Oleic Acid         6%
  7. Linoleic Acid     2%
  8. Stearic Acid       2%

The fatty acid composition tells us the characteristics and benefits of an oil.

Fatty acids are essential to skin health. Omega fatty acids, those the body can’t manufacture, play a special role in strengthening the skin’s surface, smoothing the skin, increasing hydration, calming redness and sensitivity, easing flakiness and providing antioxidants to protect against environmental damage.

Lauric Acid specifically has antibacterial properties, which can help reduce inflammation and calm the skin.  And Linoleic Acid has skin repair, acne reduction and brightening effects, however the amount in coconut oil is rather low at 2%.

But even beneficial fatty acids are not lonesome miracle workers. They work best when combined with other skin-loving ingredients, including Algae, Beta Glucan, Bisabolol, Ceramides, Cholesterol, Collagen, Glycerine, Green Tea, Hyaluronic Acid, Panthenol, Adenosine and Sodium PCA.

Let’s look at all the claims made for coconut oil and whether they have any truth to them.

Should-you-be-using-coconut-oil-in-your-skin-care?

Claimed benefits of coconut oil

Increases hydration

We all benefit from keeping our skin hydrated. Moisturising your skin keeps it healthy and is necessary regardless of whether you have dry or oily skin. It helps preserve the epidermis’s primary function as a barrier to keep bacteria out and water in.

It’s often claimed that coconut oil is good at hydrating the skin. However coconut oil doesn’t hydrate the skin by directly adding moisture and then holding that moisture in. A moisturiser has a high content of water and a blend of other ingredients. Humectants are used to hydrate, emollients to smooth and occlusives to lock in moisture. These are used in the right proportions for different skin types. Many moisturisers also contain soothing botanicals, protective antioxidants and anti-ageing actives.

Additionally, moisturisers come in different forms to suit different skin types and personal preferences, as well as seasonal conditions. They’re formulated in everything from a light lotion through to a heavy balm. This makes them a much better choice for the skin than coconut oil when it comes to smoothing, softening and hydrating.

Moisturisers may contain nut butters and/or oils in the formulation, however these are usually in small proportions. The only ingredient, however, in coconut oil is oil.

Coconut oil creates an occlusive layer and this traps moisture, thereby hydrating the skin. This protective layer on the skin may be helpful in easing certain skin conditions and creating the right environment for healing to occur.

Coconut oil is also emollient and softens the skin. But unlike a moisturiser, coconut oil is thick, heavy and greasy. It can easily smother the skin as it comprises 92% saturated fatty acids. And this means it doesn’t make a great moisturiser.

Coconut oil traps moisture in the skin and this may help relive mild to moderate dry skin. It can be applied to areas that are dry or chafed, and it may help with barrier repair. Coconut oil is considered to be as safe and as effective as mineral oil when used to relieve dry skin. However coconut oil doesn’t absorb easily; it sits on the top of the skin and leaves an oily film.

Coconut oil is said to be helpful to those with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. The antimicrobial properties of coconut oil may reduce the possibility of bacteria and fungi infecting the skin. For those with these types of skin conditions, preventing skin infections is especially important. But equally, these people may have an allergy or sensitivity to coconut oil or their skin may be irritated by it.

Those with an allergy to hazelnuts or walnuts should steer clear of it.

Reduces inflammation

Coconut oil does have anti-inflammatory benefits due to its Lauric Acid and Capric Acid composition. Inflammation is associated with many skin conditions, including acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea.

Researchers applied virgin coconut oil to inflamed skin on rats in one study. They found that the coconut oil had an anti-inflammatory effect and helped relieve pain.

Coconut oil’s anti-inflammatory effects also may be enhanced by its antioxidant properties. Oxidative stress in the body contributes to inflammation. In another study, rats were given virgin coconut oil as part of their diet, and it was found to prevent oxidative stress. Antioxidants work by lending an atom to unstable molecules and thereby neutralise these reactive atoms.

Research in this area is limited, however it indicates that coconut oil may be helpful when consumed as part of the diet or applied directly to the skin.

Improves wound healing

Coconut oil is claimed to aid in the heling of wounds. Wounds heal better when bacteria are kept out and moisture is kept in.

One study investigated the use of coconut oil in the wound healing of rats. Virgin coconut oil was applied and it was found that this sped up healing and increased levels of collagen, with collagen being critical to the closure of wounds.

As well as improving wound healing, coconut oil has antimicrobial properties. By guarding against infection, a major complication, coconut oil can help protect the wound and speed up healing. This is discussed further below.

Is antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory

Lauric Acid has been found to have antimicrobial activity. Lauric Acid is converted to Monolaurin in the body. It’s the antimicrobial agent found in a mother’s breast milk.

Coconut oil used at a concentration of 5-40% in a topical cream was found to be effective against certain bacteria and fungi, including against Propionibacterium acnes, which is associated with acne. Propionibacterium acnes are found on people’s skin, but when they overgrow they cause acne.

Interestingly, Monolaurin disintegrates the lipid membrane of bacteria, such as  Propionibacterium acnesStaphylococcus aureus, and Staphylococcus epidermidis. Keep in mind that the emulsifiers in the formulation used in this study would have helped the cream absorb better.

A 2009 study on mouse ears found Lauric Acid could reduce inflammation and bacteria even better than Benzoyl Peroxide. It also found that, in cell cultures, Lauric Acid inhibits the growth of skin bacteria such as Propionibacterium acnes, Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis at a concentration 15 times lower than Benzoyl Peroxide.

Coconut oil also contains Capric, Caproic and Caprylic medium-chain fatty acids. These aren’t as effective as Lauric Acid, but they’re also active against acne-causing bacteria and possibly fungi. Coconut oil therefore may be helpful for skin infections, cellulitis, folliculitis and athlete’s foot.

Treats acne

Coconut oil has some antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, as already mentioned, but does this make it a winner when it comes to acne?

The benefits seen in research were associated with using formulations containing only a certain amount of coconut oil or Lauric Acid and formulating them with other ingredients. Keep in mind too  that many of the studies weren’t conducted on actual people.

Coconut oil is highly comedogenic, which means it can clog pores and make acne worse. Clogged pores create a breeding ground for other bacterial and fungal infections too. Coconut oil has a comedogenic rating of 4+. While every skin is unique, a comedogenic rating of 4+ indicates that most people will break out when using this oil.

Coconut oil’s high Lauric Acid content makes it astringent on the skin. When used long term, it can disrupt the acid mantle and can cause dehydration, tightness, flaking and itching. Or it may even lead to acne or Malassezia.

Is anti-ageing

Coconut oil has antioxidant properties and so it’s claimed to be a good anti-ager. Antioxidants are ingredients that are used to help protect the skin from oxidative damage caused by free radicals and environmental stressors, such as UV and pollution. By neutralising free radicals, they prevent or limit damage caused to the skin, and in particular the degradation of collagen and elastin. Collagen and elastin are found in the support structure of the skin, the dermis, and are integral to the skin maintaining its plump and bouncy appearance.

Antioxidants in skin care help protect the skin against damage from UV and pollution, including preserving collagen and elastin in the skin, or what’s called extrinsic ageing.

Coconut oil does have some antioxidant properties. Virgin coconut oil has higher antioxidant capacity than bleached and deodorised coconut oil, which is what most of us would find in a grocery store. It’s thought this is due to coconut’s phenolic compounds, specifically Ferulic Acid and P-Coumaric Acid.

Coconut oil’s other claim to anti-ageing fame is, yet again, its high Lauric Acid content. Collagen naturally diminishes as we age, but it’s also damaged by UV and pollution. This leads to wrinkles and the much-dreaded sagging. Increasing collagen production in the skin may help diminish some of the signs of ageing.

Research is limited, although one study on rats found that virgin coconut oil helped with the production of collagen and turnover of old collagen in wounds. This isn’t the same as building collagen in healthy skin. Wounds automatically initiate a “cascade of healing” that involves the building and remodelling of collagen. This study may explain claims that coconut oil builds collagen.

Retinoids, peptides, AHAs and Vitamin C, however, are more effective than coconut oil when it comes to building collagen in the skin.

Lightens discolourations

Some natural beauty bloggers claim coconut oil works well to lighten dark spots when used with lemon juice. This is most likely due to the lemon juice, not the coconut oil. However you should never apply lemon juice to your skin as this will result in skin damage.

I couldn’t find any research showing coconut oil can act as a tyrosinase inhibitor to prevent or reduce sun spots or melasma. Tyrosinase is an enzyme involved in the production of melanin the skin. Tyrosine inhibitors are the substances that reduce or block melanin production, leading to the lightening of dark spots. Certain plant extracts have been shown to interfere with this process.

Naturally occurring tyrosinase inhibitors include:

There’s no research to show that coconut oil can lighten pigmentation, but it is rich in phenolic compounds. The only related research I could find was in the International Journal of Pharma and Bio Sciences that identifies phenolic acids as potential tyrosinase inhibitors. But this isn’t the same as a controlled study showing that coconut oil actually lightens dark spots.

Coconut oil, though, does help the skin retain moisture and creates the right environment to enable healing to occur. By doing this, it supports the skin’s repair process and so may enable it to gradually reduce the appearance of acne marks and minor injuries. People have reported their acne post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation faded after using coconut oil. But these acne marks naturally fade over time in most cases anyway. Don’t expect coconut oil to help with acne scars, sun spots or melasma.

There are far more effective natural ingredients to use to brighten your skin and fade discolourations. You can read more about hyperpigmentation and what ingredients to look for in skin care to tackle those dreaded spots. Hydroquinone remains the gold standard.

Coconut oil’s other benefits

Lauric Acid has a natural bay leaf-like scent that can be used to add fragrance to products without having to add actual fragrance or essential oils, which are irritating to the skin and can cause skin reactions.

That’s about it for the claimed benefits of coconut oil.

My view on coconut oil

Coconut oil has a number of skin benefits, but I’m not going to go coconuts for coconut oil. I personally don’t like the feel of it and find it breaks out even my dry skin. If you like using coconut oil and it works for your skin, by all means keep using it but as a ingredient in a formulation. But coconut oil on its own is going to be comedogenic for most people and, over the long term, will disrupt the skin’s all-important acid mantle.

A better form of coconut oil is Caprylic or Capric Triglyceride. You’ll find this ingredient in many skin care products from cleansers to creams.  Derived from coconut oil and glycerin, it’s an excellent emollient and is kind to the skin. Caprylic replenishes the surface of the skin and helps it resist moisture loss. You’ll find it in many products in our shop.

If you like all things coconut, keep enjoying your coconut smoothies but opt for skin care products that include coconut oil as just one of many skin-caring ingredients.

Yours truly in better skin

Anna Marie - Founder of Skin Clinica - The Skin Experts