scorecardIs coconut oil good for your skin? How to use it effectively, based on your skin type
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Is coconut oil good for your skin? How to use it effectively, based on your skin type

Sarah Fielding,Debra Jaliman   

Is coconut oil good for your skin? How to use it effectively, based on your skin type
LifeScience5 min read
  • Coconut oil is good for dry skin types that require a heavy moisturizer.
  • Coconut oil is also good if you have eczema or rosacea since it can reduce skin redness and inflammation.
  • Coconut oil is not good for oily or acne-prone skin since it can clog pores and cause breakouts.

People now use coconut oil in everything from food to skincare products. While coconut oil has benefits such as moisturizing and reducing inflammation, it can also clog pores. Some people with a tree nut allergy can have an allergic reaction to coconuts, so they should be wary of using coconut oil.

Before you start lathering coconut oil over your skin, here's what you need to know about coconut oil's potential effects.

What is coconut oil?

There are two primary types of coconut oil: virgin and refined.

"Virgin coconut oil is made from fresh coconuts, and it is typically higher in content in polyphenols and antioxidants," says Michele Green, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist in New York City. "Refined coconut oil is made from dried coconut meat. Refined coconut oil goes through more processing steps, including machine pressing to obtain the oil." In some instances, bleaching and chemical solvents are added to refined coconut oil.

Coconut oil can also be labeled as cold-pressed when produced without heat. "This type may be richer in nutrients," says Green. Thanks to greater amounts of polyphenols and antioxidants, as well as its limited processing, virgin coconut oil, especially when cold-pressed, is a better choice for use on the skin.

While coconut oil can provide dermatological benefits, it may not be right for everyone. We've broken down the benefits and detriments of using coconut oil on your skin and how to decide if it's right for you.

Coconut oil is moisturizing

Applying coconut oil to your skin can help retain moisture. This is because coconut oil contains a component of ceramides, called linoleic acid.

Ceramides are organic compounds naturally found in the skin and commonly added to skin care. "Ceramides help to strengthen the skin barrier and minimize moisture loss," says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, a dermatologist at SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care in Los Angeles.

In a small 2004 study, participants used virgin coconut oil on their legs twice a day for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks, skin hydration had significantly improved. Coconut oil can be particularly good for people with eczema or chronically dry skin.

Coconut oil can reduce inflammation

Coconut oil can also reduce skin inflammation, which causes rashes, redness, or itching, among other symptoms.

"It helps to strengthen the skin barrier, which minimizes irritants from entering the skin and maintains skin hydration, both of which work to reduce potential inflammation," says Shainhouse.

Common skin conditions that involve inflammation include:

  • Psoriasis, a chronic disease that produces scaly patches on the skin that become red and itch
  • Contact dermatitis, when the skin comes into physical contact with an allergen.
  • Eczema, where flare-ups make skin red and itchy

These conditions can each be soothed, at least temporarily, by coconut oil. In a 2018 study, virgin coconut oil suppressed skin's anti-inflammatory properties and enhanced skin barrier function. However, the study was conducted in vitro - outside of a living organism - so the exact effect on humans is unknown.

Coconut oil has antibacterial and antifungal properties

"Coconut oil also contains lauric acid, which has mild antibacterial and antifungal properties," says Shainhouse.

Coconut oil's antibacterial and antifungal properties can be misleading. "For these reasons, coconut oil is often touted as helpful for acne," says Brooke Jeffy, MD, a dermatologist at Spectrum Dermatology in Phoenix. However, acne is the result of clogged pores, which coconut oil can cause.

Coconut oil can clog pores

Coconut oil is comedogenic, meaning it can clog your pores, increasing your risk of breakouts and acne.

"Coconut is considered a four on the comedogenic scale. This measures how pore-clogging an ingredient is, rated zero to five with five being the most pore-clogging," says Green. As a result, using coconut oil frequently, especially on the face, is not recommended, she says.

Though coconut oil is comedogenic, not everyone will experience acne from it as each skin type will react differently.

How to use coconut oil on the skin

Coconut oil will affect everyone's skin differently, therefore, it may not be the best addition to everyone's skincare routine. Here's how to use coconut oil based on your skin type.

People with eczema: Thanks to its moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties, you can use coconut oil to soothe eczema flare-ups. In a 2013 study, applying virgin coconut oil to the skin of children with eczema for eight weeks improved the skin's hydration.

People with dry skin: "If you have dry, flaky skin, using coconut oil instead of your regular moisturizer may soften and hydrate your skin, leaving it looking refreshed and soft upon waking," says Green.

People with diabetes: "Diabetics with dry, scaly feet may tolerate this natural oil to moisturize and prevent skin barrier breakdown, which could otherwise leave them at risk for skin and foot infection," says Shainhouse. However, since people with diabetes can lose sensation in their feet, the skin should be carefully monitored for irritation or allergic reactions.

People with acne-prone or oily skin: "For acne-prone individuals, coconut oil can clog pores and trigger acne flares. If you do choose to use coconut oil as part of your double-cleansing routine to remove oil-soluble makeup, be sure to wash off any residual coconut oil completely," says Shainhouse.

Oily skin can already be more prone to clogged pores, and coconut oil may add to the problem.

If you do try coconut oil, there are a few ways to add it to your routine. According to Shainhouse, you can use coconut oil on your skin in the following ways:

  • As the first step in an evening double-cleansing face washing routine, washed off during the second face wash.
  • Applied to arms and legs post-shower.
  • Coat hands and cuticles before sleeping.
  • Applied to a damp scalp or hair and left on for 30 minutes before washing it out with shampoo.

If you have acne-prone or oily skin and should avoid using coconut oil on your face, Jeffy recommends applying it to areas with thicker skin, such as the elbows, knees, feet, nails, and cuticles.

"Coconut oil can be used as a body lotion or lip balm, but if breakouts start happening, it would be the first thing to stop," says Jeffy. "If someone feels really strongly that they want to be using coconut oil on the skin, looking for it as an ingredient in a product versus using the pure oil may be less likely to contribute to problems."

Insider's takeaway

Coconut oil, especially virgin coconut oil, can have beneficial properties for the skin, such as boosting hydration. However, for people with acne-prone or oily skin, it can further clog pores and increase breakouts. Using coconut oil on thicker skin, such as the legs, may lead to less irritation.

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