Season 1 Episode 15: Coconut Oil: Helpful or Harmful?
When discussing skincare, people are often divided over the topic of coconut oil. While some people consider coconut oil to be a beneficial component in skin care, others find that the oil has no place in being incorporated into skincare practices. Furthermore, many people treat the oil like a skincare miracle, with myths circulating about the benefits of coconut oil – that are often too good to be true. With so many varying opinions and ideals, it can be challenging to determine whether using coconut oil for skin and hair care would be helpful or harmful.
The Skin Report is a podcast created to educate listeners on methods to improve skin health for people of all ethnicities and ages. On this episode, host Dr. Sethi discusses using coconut oil to care for hair and skincare. She discusses the science behind coconut oil and how this contributes to the oil’s effect on the skin and hair. Furthermore, Dr. Sethi busts popular myths regarding coconut oil and explains the right way you should incorporate it as a powerful ingredient in your skincare routine.
This transcript was exported on August 23, 2022 -view latest version here.
Skincare can sometimes feel overwhelming. Whether it’s finding the right products, ingredients or treatments, there’s a lot out there, but not always for women of color. That’s why I set out to educate myself and others so that we can all feel beautiful in our skin.
Hello, and welcome to the Skin Report. I’m Dr. Simran Sethi, an internal medicine doctor, mom of three, and CEO and founder of RenewMD Medical Spas, and Skin by Dr. Sethi. Many people consider coconut oil to be their holy grail skincare ingredient, but others avoid it at all costs. So let’s discuss the facts to determine whether we should really be using coconut oil in our skin or not.
On this week’s episode, I wanted to talk about coconut oil and how it can and should be used as an ingredient to treat the skin and hair. Coconut oil can be somewhat of a controversial topic in the skincare world with many people harboring strong opinions about its use. To explain the reason behind this coconut oil discourse, I first want to discuss the science behind the oil. Coconut oil has beneficial properties which can make it as suitable component of some types of skincare. Up to 65% of coconut oil is made up of medium chain fatty acids which contributes to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Its fatty acid contents may even provide relief for certain conditions like dry skin and eczema. Coconut oil has been studied in the reduction of inflammatory skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema as it may calm rashes by reducing germs on the skin surface that can contribute to flareups.
As if these perks weren’t great enough, the lauric acid in coconut oil has also been shown to directly target the bacteria propionibacterium acnes that is responsible for development of inflammatory acne. Almost 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are comprised of lauric acid. Studies have shown that coconut oil’s high lauric acid content can block bacteria’s growth. Finally, the results of an NIH study suggest that in addition to anti-inflammatory properties, coconut oil may even be antipyretic and analgesic.
So you may be wondering why an ingredient with such beneficial properties would be so controversial as a skincare component. Well, this has to do with the oil’s negative effects on the skin which can occur depending on how people choose to incorporate the ingredient into their skincare practices. Many people believe that using coconut oil in its purest form is the best way to experience its benefits, and therefore choose to use it by applying it directly to the skin. Unfortunately, this belief is untrue. Applying coconut oil this way can actually produce side effects that cancel out its positive qualities.
As a skincare professional, I have seen countless issues in many different skin types that were caused by the direct application of coconut oil to the skin. When coconut oil is applied topically to the skin surface, it can block the pores, causing the formation of blackhead and acne. Coconut oil is comedogenic, which is a descriptor for a substance that when applieddirectly to the skin can cause comedones, otherwise known as clogged pores.
The fact that coconut oil is a comedogenic substance is a significant contributor to its criticism as a skincare element. We can look to coconut oil’s molecular makeup as the recent behind this undesirable effect on the skin when directly applied. Coconut oil has a large molecular weight, which makes it difficult to absorb into the skin. Instead, this causes it to remain on the skin surface where it can mix with dirt and debris, often resulting in clogged pores.
So how should people use coconut oil safely in their skincare? The popularity of coconut oil as a skincare component is due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and its reputation as a moisturizing agent. But if you’re hoping that there are certain skin types and tones that can use coconut oil in its plain form, this is unfortunately not the case.
Being that coconut oil is a comedogenic substance that can promote breakouts and clog pores, I absolutely do not recommend using plain coconut oil directly on the skin. Doing this can cause further skin issues regardless of your skin type or concern. For people with dry skin, applying coconut oil directly as a moisturizer can still promote clogged pores and breakouts. Dry skin has more debris from dead skin cells on its surface, so a high molecular oil like coconut oil will not seep into the deepest layers of skin. Instead, the oil would remain on the surface and trap the excess dead skin leading to clogged pores. An acne-prone skin that is already oily, applying plain coconut oil with its high molecular weight would combine with the oil already on its surface to clog pores even further.
So how can someone enjoy the great benefits of coconut oil while avoiding its poreclogging side effects? The best way for users to avoid these adverse effects is by choosing to use products that contain coconut oil as an ingredient rather than applying it directly to the skin. Coconut oil can be safely used as a part of a skincare product formulation that will transport it to the deeper skin layers, reducing the likelihood of clogged pores. While it should never be applied directly, coconut oil can have great qualities for safely nourishing the skin when used in moderation as an ingredient within a skincare product.
Another safe way that you can use coconut oil is for hair care. Coconut oil can do wonders for people looking to protect their hair from damage due to protein loss and other daily wear and tear. Hair continuously loses protein due to styling, UV exposure and mechanical forces. The outermost layer of a hair shaft is known as a cuticle and serves as a protective exterior to preserve its inner layers. When the cuticle is damaged, it becomes unable to protect the inner layers of the hair, resulting in protein loss that can leave hair dry, thin and more likely to experience breakage.
Fortunately, coconut oil is a superior oil for hair care as it is predominantly made of medium chain fatty acid. These fatty acids, especially lauric acid, are extremely effective when absorbed by the hair shaft to prevent hair protein loss. In fact, a study from the Journal of Cosmetic Science showed that coconut oil was most effective at preventing protein loss when compared to mineral and sunflower oils. This is because unlike those other oils, coconut oil can penetrate through the cuticle and deep within the hair shaft to treat and repair hair’s inner layers.
I recommend using coconut oil as a leave-in treatment overnight just once a week or less since the longer you leave it on, the more likely it is to end up on your skin and potentially cause breakouts along the hairline. Another way to use coconut oil on the hair is to apply it for a short period of time before washing. This way, it can protect thehair from water that would otherwise weaken the hair shaft and make it more susceptible to breakage. Coconut oil can be safely used for the hair and skin. And many product formulations make it easy to gain the benefits of this powerful ingredient. Still, not everyone is educated on coconut oil’s molecular build which has led to lots of myths and misinformation surrounding the ways that coconut oil can be used.
For this next part, I thought it would be interesting to go over some of the common myths surrounding coconut oil now that you know a bit more about the science behind coconut oil in skincare. Many of these beliefs have circulated on the web and by word of mouth for years. But as an internal medicine doctor, I can apply my experience and knowledge to these myths and shed light on the real skin care facts.
Our first belief about coconut oil is that it can be used as a treatment for sunburn skin. Just like aloe vera gel, coconut oil can provide a protective soothing layer when applied to sunburn skin. But again, because it has such a rich lipid content and is a high molecular weight compound, it can also clog pores especially when used directly on skin that is sloughing off after a sunburn. So if your SPF fails you this summer, I recommend sticking with agentle aloe vera gel instead of coconut oil as this can protect your skin’s moisture and reduce inflammation.
Another common coconut oil misconception is that eating foods that have coconut oil is an effective way to promote skin and hair health. Coconut oil is high in vitamin E which can be a healthy antioxidant. However, consuming coconut oil in foods does not necessarily promote skin or hair health like it does when used topically in formulations.
Also, coconut oil still has a high percentage of saturated bad fats which make up 90% of it. This leads us to another common myth that we can bust, that coconut oil is a healthy cooking oil alternative to olive or canola oil. In reality, oils like olive and avocado oil are rich in unsaturated healthy fats and are great to cook with. While coconut oil’s rich saturated fat content makes it a less healthier option for consumption.
Finally, our last myth about coconut oil is that it can be applied to the belly to avoid pregnancy stretch marks. Stretch marks form when the skin’s epidermis is stretched quickly beyond its capacity, causing tears in the skin’s connective tissue, revealing blood vessels to show through. They are a common occurrence during pregnancy and their occurrence cannot be prevented with topical products. This myth is likely perpetuated by the common notion that adding more lipids may theoretically reduce the extent of the marks. In reality, genetics play a greater factor in stretch mark formation than anything applied externally to the skin. While we are on the topic of stretch marks, you are probably wondering what is actually an effective way to treat them. Unfortunately, there are currently aren’t any effective treatments for stretch mark reduction. Microneedling can be performed, but this only makes a slight improvement and only on very light stretch marks.
Now, going back to our original discussion, remember, using coconut oil based on these myths will not provide positive results. However, you can see positive results using this oil as a component in science-backed skincare products.
To wrap up our episode, let’s talk a bit more about what we’ve learned regarding the use of oils in skincare and what to look for in skincare products. Coconut oil has some great qualities when used in moderation in skincare, but its molecular weight means that people should be careful about their application methods. Furthermore, the same principles that apply to coconut oils apply to other high molecular oils in skincare as well. The truth behind these high molecular oils is that while they can be a beneficial ingredient in skincare, they almost always lose their benefits if applied directly on skin.
However, it’s important to know that not all oils in skincare are created equal. Beauty companies frequently use mineral oils in skin and hair care products as the main ingredient to keep their cost of production down. This is because mineral oil is a cheap way to incorporate moisturizing oils into skincare product. But unfortunately, mineral oil does not have any benefits other than keeping the cost and quality of your skincare products down. While mineral oil is a moisturizer, it does not provide the added benefits that other oils like coconut oil have.
I personally consider it misleading for companies to advertise products around having a beneficial oil when in reality, the product only contains a small amount of it and instead contains a greater concentration of mineral oils. To avoid these situations as a consumer, get into the habit of reading the label on your product to determine whether the beneficial oil is listed as one of the main ingredients. It’s also important to make sure that the product does not list mineral oil as one of its first four ingredients. If so, you may want to reconsider the benefits that the product is really providing your skin.
That leads us to our next topic, what you should look for when buying products with coconut oil. Based on what we know about the different types of coconut oil and how they affect the skin, the answer to this question is not so straightforward. Coconut oil can be purchased as refined or virgin oil. Refined coconut oil is created through a drying process which involves bleaching and deodorizing it. Virgin coconut oil is created through wet processing where the oil is obtained directly from raw coconut meat and is not bleached or deodorized.
So which of these options is best for your skin? A 2009 NCBI study on coconut oil extraction found that virgin coconut oil improved antioxidant status when compared to refined coconut oil and indicated that virgin coconut oil may be better at reducing inflammation and fighting free radicals than refined coconut oil. The process of creating virgin coconut oil also theoretically helps preserve the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of coconut oil as shown in small studies. However, this has not really been compared to the alternative form of coconut oil extraction called dry extraction in skincare. For these reasons, many consider virgin coconut oil to be a better choice in skincare products. And yet, while some may suggest choosing virgin coconut oil for your skincare, the benefits of wet processed or virgin coconut oil are at best theoretical.
We still have a lot of learning to do about coconut oil and its effects in skincare. But to conclude today’s episode, I wanted to go over some of the science-backed facts that we do know surrounding this unique ingredient. Coconut oil can be beneficial for topical use on the skin when applied properly as an ingredient in skincare formulations. In hair care, coconut oil can protect the protein in hair strands, reducing the damaging effects from water, styling and other wear and tear. Unfortunately, many myths exist surrounding coconut oil and its beneficial properties. If any of its uses sound too good to be true, check the facts as this main fact be the case. When buying skincare products that are advertised as containing coconut oil, I encourage listeners to read the product labels. Doing so can help you see whether coconut oil is actually a main component in the product instead of the product mostly being a non-beneficial mineral oil mixed with a small quantity of coconut oil.
As a final word on this episode, remember that when using coconut oil and skincare, application matters. I know I sound like a broken record here, but I just want to help listeners safely and effectively use this ingredient. Always consider using a non-comedogenic skincare formula containing coconut oil that can nourish your skin while keeping it blemish-free.
If you’dlike to learn more about science-backed skincare or medical aesthetic treatments, please subscribe to and turn on notifications for the Skin Report so you always know when a new episode is up. We have a newsletter that you can sign up for on renewmdwellness.com so that you can stay up to date on all our new episodes, blogs, products and more. Additionally, if you have a skincare question or want to make an episode topic recommendation, please message me at renewmdwellness.com, which is linked in my show notes, and I’ll be sure to answer your question in an episode soon. Thank you all for listening today. I hope you have a great summer full of fun plans and glowing skin.