Coconut oil has gained a big following in natural beauty circles in recent years. This oil does have a significant list of benefits, including the fact that it is readily available at many natural food stores, affordable, shelf stable, natural, and not environmentally problematic. It’s one of the most popular natural oils, to be sure. But is coconut oil causing dry skin or allergic type reaction in certain skin types? Let’s take a closer look at both the pros and cons of using this cult beauty hit.
Books such as The Coconut Oil Miracle tout its extensive health benefits when taken internally as an immune system support, weight loss aid, digestion and nutrition absorption aid, and many other traits. A simple Amazon search pulls up over 10 guides to the benefits of coconut oil including one specifically dedicated to pets and another for oil pulling. It's fantastic for cooking and the flavor of virgin coconut oil makes a delectable popcorn topping for a Saturday evening movie at home. Combine it with a bit of truffle oil, salt, and onion powder and you've got a mouth party like you've never known before.
With all those delightful qualities you might be surprised to hear that on the subject of coconut oil and skin there are extremely mixed results. Coconut oil is used in a starring role for everything from a makeup remover to a general moisturizer, and is frequently one of the first natural oils people experiment with for home recipes and DIY beauty. Unfortunately, for very dry skin types the results of coconut oil often skew towards an increase in the look and feel of dry skin issues.
A quick search of blogs on coconut oil and skin used for beauty purposes for anecdotal evidence shows a lot of confused results in the comments sections. Some people are brilliantly happy with their new discovery and others are quizzical, inquiring if their uncomfortable situations post-use are normal. Due to what I've seen over years in natural beauty working with clients, coconut oil is not one of our top choices for picky skin types. We use it only when blended down with other ingredients and we make sure to provide many recipes that are completely free of this oil for individuals that have adverse reactions.
Let's be clear - are we saying coconut oil causes dry skin in all skin types or is an unhealthy option for skin? Heck no! But its unique chemistry is causing a wide range of effects on people's skin.
Here we answer some of the top questions concerning coconut oil for your skin: Can coconut oil dry skin? Can coconut oil cause itching skin? Can coconut oil help dry skin? And more!
The Chemistry of Coconut Oil
Coconuts grow on coconut palm trees and once harvested the coconut is broken open, the coconut "meat" or copra is dried, and then pressed hydraulically at 100 to 130 degrees F to extract the oil. Per tablespoon the resulting oil has 117 calories, 0 grams of protein, 13.6 grams of fat (11.8 saturated, 0.8 monounsaturated and 0.2 polyunsaturated) and 0 grams of carbohydrate (0 grams of fiber and 0 grams of sugar). It provides negligible vitamins or minerals. For further reference see the USDA National Nutrient Database.
Coconut oil is largely made up of saturated fat. Saturated fats are so called because they have all their Carbon to Hydrogen bond areas occupied by strong single bonds. Every bond site is "saturated" with as strong a bond as it needs - its dance card is full, in layman's terms. The fact that the fat molecule already has Hydrogen atoms in very stable arrangements also means the oil is not very reactive with oxygen, making saturated fats relatively stable for long term storage. In general, saturated fats have been thought to be not the ideal dietary fat source. Polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in chia seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and other seeds have generally been preferred because they were supposed not to cause complications with vascular system health in the way that saturated fats supposedly did.
This general rule is likely what has caused the cheer squad to come out in such force on behalf of coconut oil. The plethora of PR fanfare that coconut oil is actually healthy has mostly overcome the previous conception that it was saturated fat and therefore verboten. However, life and chemistry love to throw us curve balls and coconut oil, despite being saturated fat, operates uniquely in the body.
Fats are more specifically known as fatty acids. As shown in the picture above, the molecule is numerous Carbon atoms chained together. There are short, medium, and long chain fatty acids. Coconut oil has an unusually high amount of medium-chain fatty acids, which are harder for our bodies to convert into stored fat and easier for them to burn off. This is likely the source of the metabolic boost or weight loss effect from coconut oil consumption. The body simply burns the provided fuel more efficiently.
Coconut Oil Fatty Acid Composition
The saturated fats in coconut oil break down into the following maximum percentages of fatty acids:
Caprylic, C8: 9%
Decanoic, C10: 10%
Lauric, C12: 52%
Myristic, C14: 19%
Palmitic, C16: 11%
Medium chain fatty acids have 6 to 12 Carbon atoms, putting a solid 70% of coconut oil fatty acid content into the medium chain length category. Coconut oil, along with palm kernel oil, is one of the few truly rich sources of lauric acid. It's as exotic as the coconut itself to those of us from landlocked, non-tropical territory where we wistfully look out our dreary windows for months of gray drizzle. (Is it spring yet???) Otherwise, lauric acid is rare in nature, so you won't be getting it from any other oils in your favorite facial products.
Lauric acid has been shown in studies to significantly penetrate the skin and actually can accumulate in the stratum corneum, your handy dandy top layer of skin cells. This high penetration ability likely accounts for the extremely lightweight feel of coconut oil that people love. It doesn't remain on the surface and feel "oily", it soaks in quickly. In a 2004 study comparing the moisturizing effects of petroleum based mineral oil versus coconut oil for your skin hydration, both did improve skin's overall hydration level for 34 test subjects. These subjects had negative allergy patch-test reactions to the oil, though, so the study chose people that already had neutral reactions to the oil, meaning anyone that showed negative reactions was left out of the study group.
This would seem to be a huge boon for skin! Lightweight, non-greasy moisture that works as well as mineral oil in hydrating skin with no nasty impurities. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
"If you think it's simple, then you have misunderstood the problem."- Bjarne Soustrup
And the problem is your skin. It's complex and different for each person. Different cell turnover rates, different pore sizes, different microbiological populations, different immune responses.... It's all skin and yet all varies. You are composed uniquely even if coconut oil is generally the same stuff applied person to person to person. We so love a standardized solution in our mass-produced world these days. But if there's something we've learned in working with the human body, it's that there is no one solution for every person in any aspect of addressing issues and concerns. You have to deal with each situation uniquely.
Can Coconut Oil Dry Skin?
Despite the fact that coconut oil is definitely an oil and, as stated above, it does absorb into the skin, many people also report that coconut oil increases the feeling of dryness in their skin. This seems completely counterintuitive, but again, plenty of comments threads read like this one that states " coconut oil causes sandpaper hands". Yep.
How could this be? One possible explanation is that the oil's absorption actually causes more problems than it solves for some people. Your skin produces its own sebum to moisturize the skin. Applying oil to the skin affects natural oil balance. By applying more oil, your skin feels moisturized and may begin to produce less natural oil because it already feels oil-rich. You can see the opposite of this effect when people use too many astringents and strip their skin of oil repeatedly, then causing overproduction of oil resulting in a slick like the Gulf spill of 2010 right on their face. With oil and faces, the right amount of the right type is like the heavens open up and angels sing - sublime! But the wrong one for your skin type can definitely throw things off.
Coconut oil may make the skin feel moisturized initially, which may be causing a slowing of natural sebum production, while the oil virtually disappears from the surface of the skin through absorption. Your skin needs a layer of oils (lipids) on the surface to protect it from environmental stressors and transepidermal water loss - the evaporation of your valuable hydration from inside the skin. With an oil that is super absorbent, like coconut oil, skin may be getting the message that its received enough moisture, which lowers the balance of natural oils. Then, once the coconut oil is absorbed, you have nothing left to protect you on the surface. Whoops! Skin is then left feeling like it's having one of those dreams about being naked in public. Not so pleasant.
We've done skin consultations for two sisters whose reactions to coconut oil were totally different. One could use it for everything and it worked beautifully for her. She was as happy as the Pointer Sisters in "I'm So Excited." Sister #2 reported that her skin on coconut oil felt dry, uncomfortable, and even itchy. She had to stop using it because of how it affected her skin. And that seems to be the trend for results with this oil - half happy, half not.
Coconut Oil is an Allergen for Some People
Coconut can be an allergen for people who have tree nut allergy problems. Not all people who are allergic to tree nuts are allergic to coconut, and coconut is technically classified as a fruit. This still doesn't stop some people from having reactions. As a disclaimer to this point, it is possible to be allergic to practically anything.
A 1999 study showed that two patients with life-threatening tree nut allergies experienced an onset of systemic reaction after consuming coconut oil. While a coconut allergy is rare in people with tree nut allergies, those with significant tree nut allergies may want to use coconut oil cautiously.
As for allergic reaction in skin with topical use of coconut oil? A quick Google search proves that the vast majority of research says coconut oil allergy is very rare. Still, we know customers and friends who cannot eat coconut oil and many customers who tell us they have to avoid it completely because of troublesome side effects and skin concerns. Even coconut oil derivatives, like cetearyl alcohol, appear to be problematic for some people.
It is possible that allergic type reactions could develop over time with continued use of coconut oil. Take research done on a six year old who developed a skin rash after a lifetime of having coconut oil applied to skin regularly, and became ill with hives, vomiting, and diarrhea after consuming the oil.
Contact dermatitis is more common than a food allergy to coconut oil, often the result of using low quality or chemically processed coconut-derived ingredients. While pure, virgin coconut oil is considered non-allergenic, certain skin types may experience signs of contact dermatitis with use, possibly due to the look and feel of irritation and redness caused by excessive dryness, as covered above.
Another reason coconut oil may cause skin upset in some skin types is interference with the skin’s microbiome. The
lauric acid in coconut oil is such a potent antibacterial agent that it has been found to be stronger than Benzoyl Peroxide against Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria known for causing acne. Lauric acid and monolaurin can also can control growth of Staphylococcus aureus, a pathogenic bacteria that overpopulates on people with atopic dermatitis (eczema) and can cause skin infections. It is powerful enough that it is considered a broad spectrum antibacterial agent. Broad spectrum means it kills many kinds of microbes. This can be a double-edged sword, though.
The skin contains a huge population of beneficial bacteria that are part of the body’s immune system, helping to protect against environmental stressors, harsh ingredients, medications, and everything else the skin comes into contact with. Beneficial bacteria produce compounds that limit the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria. This protects their living environment, and protects you as well, reducing the load of work for your own immune system and acting as an initial line of defense. This is one reason regular use of antibacterial hand soap is not advised. It removes the good bacteria along with the bad, allowing the possibility for a new population of pathogenic bacteria to populate without any beneficial bacteria there to control them.
Could the antibacterial properties of coconut oil actually be detrimental to the beneficial flora on the skin when it is used consistently for prolonged periods of time? The skin microbiome is an emerging area of research, and far more study has been done on the control of pathogenic bacteria than on the promotion of beneficial bacteria. However it is a natural conclusion that continuously applying an antimicrobial oil to the skin could alter the natural balance of the skin microbiome, and possibly be a part of contributing to a long term imbalance. This may strain the body's own immune system as it is forced to take over the work of skin defense without its helper microbes.
Coconut Oil has Very Low Nutritional Value for Skin
As stated earlier coconut oil also has basically no vitamin or mineral content. It's fats flying solo. We've seen blog posts claiming it has "high Vitamin E content" but that claim is not substantiated. It may be they were confused by the stability of coconut oil, as many oils have longer shelf lives because of Vitamin E. Coconut oil is stable because of its saturated bonds. There are fat soluble vitamins that do occur in other oils in concentration. Oils like rosehip have natural Vitamin A content, sea buckthorn has a multitude of bright orange carotenoids, cranberry and raspberry seed oils have natural Vitamin E. Other oils also have compounds known as phytosterols which help the skin with water retention and barrier recovery - excellent for irritated skin! And while coconut oil does have antioxidant compounds, there are oils with much denser antioxidant loads such as tamanu.
How to Tell if Coconut Oil is Causing Your Dry Skin Problems
If you have been using coconut oil and you wonder if it might be to blame for causing your dry and itching skin it is time to take action. The best way to find out if coconut oil is the culprit is to stop using it completely, and switch to a different oil or product. You can find a list of other oils we recommend to replace your coconut oil below. If you experience substantial relief when doing this it is likely that coconut oil has been causing your skin problems.
If you are new to using coconut oil you will want to find out if your skin will think it is friend or foe. The best way to do this is to perform a "patch test". Select a small area of skin that is potentially in a hidden spot, or on the side of the face. Apply the oil and let it absorb. You can do this for a few days in the same spot to see if there is a cumulative effect. If you have no detrimental reaction to the oil you can consider then applying it to a larger area of skin. Monitor your skin for any changes as you begin using it.
Better Natural Oil Options for Those With Dry or Allergic Skin Types
We are all unique and have individual skin types, as well. What works for your mother, sister, or best friend may leave your skin looking less than beautiful or healthy. If you are someone who experiences negative effects with the use of coconut oil, no worries. There are many wonderful natural oils for all skin types. Here are a few that work well for those with dry and sensitive skin types.
Hemp Seed Oil: A perfect ingredient for conditioning the skin, hemp seed oil is rich in omega fatty acids and phytonutrients, comparable in weight to coconut oil, and has a much broader usefulness for a variety of skin types. It's less stable over time, which is why it is not used as often as other oils in skincare, but it offers magical results to the look and feel of skin while it’s fresh. This oil contains plenty of omega fatty acids and lots of good phytonutrients.
Camellia Seed Oil: This beauty, taken from the seed of the tea plant, is perfect for moisturizing the body. Richer than hemp seed oil, camellia alleviates the feel of excessive dryness, working wonders on dry patches, and contains high levels of antioxidants. The oil has a mild aroma and makes a great carrier for essential oils.
Tamanu Oil: This oil is ideal for those experiencing irritation or upset skin issues, like eczema or dermatitis. It has a very low likelihood of allergic reaction and offers a more protective feel to skin than coconut oil. Tamanu oil has nutritive qualities and visibly improves the look of skin.
Grapeseed Oil: Lightweight, inexpensive, and rich in Vitamin E, grapeseed oil has a low incidence of allergy issues. This oil makes the perfect makeup remover or oil cleanser. Opt for raw, unrefined grapeseed oil (green in color) over solvent extracted and refined (clear).
The bottom line with coconut oil dry itchy skin? If you experience any form of skin upset while using coconut oil, or any ingredient for that matter, discontinue use immediately. There are many natural oils that work well on dry and allergic skin types, like those above. Leave the CO for those who benefit from it and get in on the goodness of those your skin will love.
Need some extra help? Join our Facebook support group for people with acne, rosacea, and eczema to learn more and get ongoing tips.
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