Coconut oil is a type of fat that has been promoted for its health-promoting properties.
From lowering LDL cholesterol levels to improving brain function in Alzheimer's patients, coconut oil is associated with a multitude of health benefits (1, 2).
In fact, several studies have even found that it could have benefits for skin health too.
This article analyzes the evidence to examine whether coconut oil is good for the skin.
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is a highly saturated oil that is traditionally made by extracting oil from raw coconuts or dried coconut grains (3).
At room temperature it is solid, but when heated it can soften or even melt.
It is often used in the kitchen or applied directly on the skin and hair.
Coconut oil is rich in medium chain fatty acids, which are a form of saturated fat. In fact, these medium chain fatty acids constitute approximately 65% of their total composition (4).
The fatty acids found in coconut oil include (4):
- Lauric acid: 49%
- Myristic acid: 18%
- Caprylic acid: 8%
- Palmitic acid: 8%
- Capric acid: 7%
- Oleic acid: 6%
- Linoleic acid: two%
- Stearic acid: two%
Although coconut oil contains approximately 90% saturated fat, it also contains small amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. One tablespoon contains approximately 12 grams of saturated fat and 1 gram of unsaturated fat (5).
Summary: Coconut oil is used for cooking, but it can also be applied to the skin or hair. It is rich in saturated fats and medium chain fatty acids, especially lauric acid.
It can kill harmful microorganisms
The medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil have antimicrobial properties that can help protect against harmful microorganisms.
This is especially important for the health of the skin, since many types of skin infections, such as acne, cellulitis, folliculitis and athlete's foot, are caused by bacteria or fungi (6).
The application of coconut oil directly on the skin can prevent the growth of these microorganisms.
This is due to its content of lauric acid, which makes up almost 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil and can fight harmful microorganisms.
One study tested the antibacterial properties of 30 types of fatty acids against 20 different strains of bacteria. It was found that lauric acid is the most effective in blocking the growth of bacteria (7).
Another test tube study showed that lauric acid can kill Propionibacterium acnes, a type of bacteria that leads to the development of inflammatory acne (8).
In addition, capric acid is another medium-chain fatty acid found in coconut oil, although to a lesser extent. Like lauric acid, capric acid has been shown to have potent antimicrobial properties.
A test-tube study showed that both lauric acid and capric acid effectively eliminated strains of bacteria (9).
Another test-tube study demonstrated the antifungal effects of capric acid and showed that it was capable of inhibiting the growth of certain types of fungi (10).
Summary: The fatty acids found in coconut oil have antimicrobial properties that effectively kill bacteria and fungi.
Coconut oil may reduce inflammation
Chronic inflammation is an important component of many different types of skin disorders, such as psoriasis, contact dermatitis and eczema (11).
Interestingly, it has been shown that coconut oil has anti-inflammatory properties.
In one study, researchers applied virgin coconut oil to the inflamed ears of rats. Not only was coconut oil found to have an anti-inflammatory effect, but it also relieved pain (12).
In addition, coconut oil can relieve inflammation by improving the antioxidant status.
Antioxidants act by stabilizing free radicals in the body, neutralizing reactive atoms that can contribute to inflammation (13).
A 2013 animal study fed rats with different types of oil, including coconut oil, olive oil and sunflower oil. At the end of the 45-day study, virgin coconut oil had improved the antioxidant status and avoided oxidative stress as much as possible (14).
It is important to keep in mind that most current research is limited to animal studies and test tubes, so it is difficult to know how these results can be translated to humans.
However, according to these studies, coconut oil shows great potential in its ability to reduce inflammation when consumed or applied to the skin.
Summary: Studies in animals have shown that coconut oil can relieve inflammation by improving the antioxidant status and decreasing oxidative stress.
Coconut oil can help treat acne
While some think that coconut oil clogs pores, considerable research shows that it could actually help treat acne.
Acne is an inflammatory condition and many of the medications used to treat it work by attacking and reducing inflammation (15).
Because coconut oil and its components can help reduce inflammation in the body, it can also help in the treatment of acne.
In addition, the antibacterial properties of medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil may also help reduce acne.
Numerous studies have shown that lauric acid, which accounts for almost half of the fatty acids in coconut oil, eliminates the strain of bacteria related to acne (8, 16).
In fact, test tube and animal studies have shown that lauric acid is more effective than benzoyl peroxide in preventing the growth of bacteria that cause acne (16).
Along with lauric acid, it has been shown that capric acid has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
A study of animals and specimens carried out in 2014 showed that both lauric acid and capric acid were able to reduce inflammation and prevent acne by eliminating bacteria (17).
For the best results, coconut oil should be applied directly on the skin in areas where acne is found.
Summary: The anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties of coconut oil and its components could help treat acne.
Coconut oil can moisten dry skin
In addition to its effects on acne and inflammation, applying coconut oil to the skin can also help keep it hydrated.
A study in patients with mild to moderately dry skin compared the effects of coconut oil with mineral oil, a type of oil made from oil that is often used to treat dry skin.
The two-week study found that coconut oil significantly improved skin hydration and was as effective as mineral oil (18).
It has also been shown to help treat eczema, a skin condition characterized by scaly and itchy rashes.
A study that compared the effects of olive oil and coconut oil on 52 adults with eczema found that the application of coconut oil helped reduce dryness, in addition to helping to treat eczema (19).
Another study found similar results, showing that coconut oil led to a 68% decrease in the severity of eczema, which makes it significantly more effective than mineral oil in the treatment of eczema (20).
Keeping the skin hydrated can help preserve its function as a barrier to keep bacteria away, promote scar healing and maintain the overall integrity of the skin (21, 22, 23).
Summary: Coconut oil can be an effective moisturizer and helps in the treatment of dry skin and eczema.
Coconut oil can help with wound healing
Several studies have shown that coconut oil can also help heal wounds.
An animal study looked at how coconut oil applied to the skin affected wound healing in rats.
It was found that the treatment of the wounds with virgin coconut oil accelerated the healing, improved the state of the antioxidants and increased the levels of collagen, an important protein that helps in the healing of wounds (24).
Another study in animals showed that coconut oil combined with an antibiotic applied to the skin was effective in curing burns (25).
In addition to improving wound healing, its antimicrobial properties can also prevent infections, one of the main risk factors that can complicate the healing process (26).
Summary: Studies in animals have shown that coconut oil can help accelerate wound healing.
Who should not use coconut oil?
While research shows that coconut oil can benefit the health of the skin, its application on the skin may not be ideal for everyone.
For example, those who have oily skin may want to avoid doing so, as it can block pores and cause blackheads.
As with most things, testing and error may be the best approach to determine if coconut oil works for you.
Also, if you have sensitive skin, use a small amount or try to apply it only on a small section of skin to make sure it does not cause irritation or block pores.
However, eating and cooking with coconut oil is generally not a problem for most people.
That said, if you have oily or very sensitive skin, consider adding coconut oil to your diet instead of taking advantage of its benefits.
Summary: Coconut oil could potentially clog pores. It is recommended to use a small amount and slowly assess your tolerance to people with oily or sensitive skin.
What kind of coconut oil is the best?
Coconut oil can be produced through dry or wet processing.
Dry processing consists of drying the coconut meat to create grains, pressing them to extract the oil, then whitening and deodorizing them.
This process forms refined coconut oil, which has a more neutral aroma and a higher smoke point (27).
In wet processing, coconut oil is obtained from raw coconut meat, instead of drying it, to create a virgin coconut oil. This helps retain the aroma of the coconut and results in a lower smoke point (27).
While refined coconut oil may be more suitable for cooking at high temperatures, virgin coconut oil is a better choice in terms of skin health.
Not only does most of the existing research focus specifically on the effects of virgin coconut oil, but there is also evidence that it may have added health benefits.
An animal study conducted in 2009 found that virgin coconut oil improved the antioxidant status and increased the ability to neutralize disease-causing free radicals, compared to refined coconut oil (28).
Another test tube study showed that virgin coconut oil had a higher amount of antioxidants that reduce inflammation, as well as a better ability to fight free radicals, compared to refined coconut oil (27).
The results of these two studies indicate that virgin coconut oil may be more effective than refined coconut oil in preventing oxidation and neutralizing free radicals, which can damage cells and cause inflammation and disease.
Summary: Virgin coconut oil may be a better option than refined coconut oil, as it provides additional health benefits such as improved antioxidant status.
The bottom line
Although the health benefits of eating coconut oil are well studied, research on its effects on the skin is mainly limited to animal studies or test tubes.
However, coconut oil may be related to some potential benefits to the skin, such as reducing inflammation, keeping the skin hydrated and helping to heal wounds.
The medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil also have antimicrobial properties that can help treat acne and protect the skin from harmful bacteria.
If you have oily or very sensitive skin, be sure to start slowly to assess your tolerance and consult a dermatologist if you have any questions.
Reference: https: //www.healthline.com/nutrition/coconut-oil-and-skin