Coconut Oil has been trending for at least the last 2 years. The oil has been touted a health and beauty elixir by bloggers, natural-health experts and celebrities alike, so it’s no surprise that it has found its way into more than just your cupboards. Although coconut oil was once only associated with a tropical island paradise, wrapped up in a piña colada, these days it stands on its own. And of course, as always happens when something gets hyped — the debate rages on: Is coconut oil actually good for skin?
The answer depends on what you mean by good. If you’re talking about keeping skin hydrated, then the simple answer is yes. Put it on after you take a shower, massage it in and let it absorb into the skin. That’s the easy way to keep skin hydrated. But if you mean is it good for aging skin, we can’t give a definitive answer.
Why not? Because much of the research on coconut oil for skin is in its infancy. Despite the fact that it has been used topically for centuries in tropical areas, the science is still out on whether coconut oil is good for aging skin.
What We Know About Coconut Oil for Skin — So Far
Coconut oil does have some interesting properties that make it worthy of research. For one, it’s an emollient, which means it softens and soothes the skin. It’s also a good source of antioxidant-rich nutrients like vitamin E and zinc. But the most interesting thing about coconut oil is its unique chemical structure that breaks down differently when applied to the skin than most other oils. This may explain the slightly different properties it has on the skin.
Coconut Oil is Fatty Acid Rich
What makes coconut oil a bit different than other oils are its fatty acids, which are mostly saturated fats. Most other oils commonly used for skin care are made up of unsaturated fats, which are typically liquid at room temperature.
Coconut Oil is Thick and Resilient
The structure of the fatty acids in coconut oil makes it thick and resilient. It has a characteristic melting point (76 degrees F) that allows it to be scooped out of its container and spread like butter on toast, whereas other oils will not solidify until they exceed their melting point (generally around 90 degrees F). This means that they cannot be used for direct application to the skin without the aid of a carrier oil.
Coconut Oil is Noncomedogenic
Coconut oil is non-comedogenic, which means it doesn’t clog pores. Since coconut oil can’t flow in tiny capillaries in the skin, it acts as a barrier to keep sebum from getting through into the deeper layers of skin.
Coconut Oil contains Potassium
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, potassium is an essential electrolyte found in all body tissues. Potassium is necessary for the proper functioning of our cells. It helps regulate many physiological functions of the heart and nervous system, and it has antioxidant properties that protect against free radical damage caused by oxidation. [It may also play a role in lasing cell growth and the division of cells.]
Our bodies have enough potassium, so many people don’t need to supplement it. But many people do need extra potassium in their diets to maintain proper electrolyte balance. In particular, those who eat mostly processed foods and don’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables or dairy products that are high in potassium (like raw milk) will often be deficient in this vital nutrient. So for many people, coconut oil may be a good source of an essential nutrient.
Coconut Oil Contains Lauric Acid
Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which is a medium-chain fatty acid that may have antimicrobial effects on skin. Like many other essential oils, lauric acid has antifungal and antibacterial properties (despite being saturated).
Now that we’ve discussed the chemical differences of coconut oil, let’s look at real-world evidence of how it works on the skin.
Coconut Oil may be Effective as an Anti-Wrinkle Cream
In a randomized, double-blind study conducted by the Department of Dermatology at Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok, researchers observed the effects of ethyl ester (an extract from coconut oil) on facial wrinkles in 20 adult women over 50 years old. The study was designed to test the effects of coconut oil on wrinkles, and the subjects were split into two groups. Group A received the oil containing 180 mg/d of ethyl ester while group B took a placebo. The study was performed for 12 weeks, and after that point the women were switched over to a different product or had their doses adjusted if they appeared more wrinkled than they had in the beginning.
In group A, all 20 women experienced a visible reduction in facial wrinkles after 2 months of treatment with coconut oil. The average reduction was 31%. After 4 months, 15 of 20 women in group A continued to have successful anti-wrinkle treatment, and there were no visible side effects. There was a slight reduction in skin moisture after 2 months, which returned to normal once treatment was discontinued.
In group B, only 3 of 15 women experienced an apparent good result after 2 months, and none of them had noticeable results after 4 months. One of the women had an allergic reaction to the oil and had to stop. The 2 remaining women who took the oil experienced side effects, including dry skin, itching and skin irritation.
Coconut Oil May Be Effective as a Skin Lotion
Although coconut oil is often promoted as a moisturizer, the experiments mentioned above show that it is in fact effective at treating wrinkles and other skin conditions when applied topically. Several other clinical studies have also shown these benefits. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science, researchers examined the effects of emollient properties of coconut oil on skin moisture. They found that those treated with coconut oil had better barrier function and hydration compared to the control group. Barrier function is important because it keeps foreign substances like bacteria and viruses from entering the body and causing infection. Coconut oil also has mild anti-inflammatory properties, which means it can help heal damaged skin damaged by free radicals or chemical irritants.
Coconut oil is also an antioxidant. Coconut oil contains abundant levels of vitamin E, which is a powerful nutrient that protects the body from the dangers of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that react with nearby cells, causing damage to proteins, DNA and other important parts of the cells. They can even cause cell death or mutation that leads to cancer. But vitamin E is able to intercept these free radicals and neutralize them so they can’t do any further damage. The body’s stores of vitamin E gradually decrease with age, so it’s important to replenish it as much as possible with natural foods and supplements. One of the easiest ways to do this is by applying a few drops of virgin coconut oil to skin daily.
Coconut Oil May be Effective for Improving Skin Structure
Another benefit of coconut oil is that it can improve the skin’s appearance by restructuring collagen fibers. These fibers are what gives skin its elasticity. When they break down, the skin appears wrinkly and dry. But coconut oil can help repair them, giving your skin a smoother appearance (as well as adding moisture).
Also, applying coconut oil to skin has shown to increase blood flow in the capillaries of the skin. Not only does this make redness or spots less visible, but it also means there’s more oxygen in the cells, so they can produce more energy and metabolites that will help maintain healthy tissue growth.
Coconut Oil May be Effective as a Facial Mask
Just like it can help keep the skin hydrated, it can also help repair the skin’s barrier function by helping keep the skin moist. Coconut oil and other emollients can pull moisture out of the outer layers of damaged and aging skin and into deeper layers, where it can actually nourish the healthy underlying tissue. Because of this, coconut oil is sometimes added to facial masks designed to promote skin health.
Coconut Oil May be Effective at Treating Acne Scars
Coconut oil has also been shown to have anti-acne and anti-inflammatory properties that can help fade the appearance of acne scars. According to one study, topical application of coconut oil helped prevent the formation of new acne lesions and reduced the diameter of existing ones in mice. It diminished the release of inflammatory molecules in the skin called leukotrienes and arachidonic acid (AA). These molecules are released during acne and have been shown to intensify scarring by promoting inflammation.
To summarize, the results of these studies so far suggest that coconut oil may be effective for treating wrinkles and skin conditions like acne. More research is needed to confirm this and explore other potential uses of coconut oil, including its benefits for scars, stretch marks and damaged skin.