Should You Add Coconut Oil to Your Skin-Care Routine?
Ever since coconut oil gained superfood status — thanks to its versatility, availability as a plant-based alternative to butter, and contested health benefits — coconut oil has held a spot in many kitchen cupboards.
But as it turns out, the oil is also worthy of its own place in your bathroom vanity, right next to your nourishing face masks and makeup-erasing products. Here’s what you need to know about using coconut oil for skin care, from its perks and uses to the drawbacks worth considering.
Wait, Is Coconut Oil Good for Your Skin?
Here's the gist: While everyone’s skin is different, for the most part, coconut oil can be a safe addition to your skin-care routine, says Lance H. Brown, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and the Hamptons. The non-fragrant oil is rich in fatty acids, including linoleic acid and lauric acid, which may give it anti-bacterial properties, says Dr. Brown. And most significantly, coconut oil can act as a seal on your skin to lock in moisture and keep skin hydrated, says Jenny Liu, M.D., F.A.A.D., an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota.
But the ultra-hydrating barrier coconut oil creates is also what makes it problematic: The oil often feels greasy and is comedogenic, meaning it’s likely to clog pores and lead to acne, explains Dr. Liu. For that reason, Dr. Brown recommends avoiding using coconut oil as a body oil if you’re prone to getting acne on your chest or back, as it may have a greater tendency to clog pores in those areas. (Related: Are Boob Masks the Secret to a Glowing, Acne-Free Chest?)
And if you’re considering applying it to your parched (face) cheeks and forehead, you may want to think twice before you act. “There’s controversy over the benefits coconut oil may have for your face,” explains Dr. Brown. “Any oil on your face potentially could cause breakouts; however, some feel it is a good treatment for acne.” Translation: Use coconut oil for skin with caution, as its fatty acids could help curb acne-causing bacteria, but its high comedogenicity makes it more likely than other face oils (think: jojoba oil or argan oil) to build up in your pores.
The Benefits of Coconut Oil for Skin — Plus How to Use Coconut Oil for Skin
It adds major moisture.
One of the biggest perks of coconut oil: Its hydration factor. Research has found that coconut oil significantly improves skin hydration, and it’s a natural product that's just as safe and effective as mineral oil (a common ingredient used in ointments and creams that helps reduce water loss from skin and is made from highly refined petroleum) when it's used as a moisturizer to relieve dry skin. And if you’re dealing with eczema, coconut oil can be a helpful natural remedy. In one study of 117 children with eczema, nearly half of those who topically applied virgin coconut oil to the affected area saw a moderate improvement of symptoms, and it reduced the severity of symptoms about 30 percent more than mineral oil did.
To get these perks, slather the coconut oil on your body once a day after you bathe and after you moisturize with your usual body lotion. Applying the coconut oil post-lotion will further lock in hydration and prevent water from evaporating through the skin barrier, says Dr. Liu. (Related: The Correct Order to Apply All Your Skin-Care Products)
It nourishes dry hair.
Thanks to those same moisturizing qualities, coconut oil can work wonders on dry, frizzy tresses when used as a hair mask. Once a week, run a spoonful or two of coconut oil from the scalp through the hair shaft and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, says Dr. Liu. Just make sure to wash your hair afterward to get out all the grease, she adds. And for some hair types, coconut oil can hold a spot as an everyday product: “Black patients who have dry hair as a baseline may use coconut oil as a ‘hair oil’ to hydrate hair, and it can be used as needed,” says Dr. Liu. “But you need to be careful that you wash your pillowcase frequently, as the residue on it can cause acne.” (Coconut oil can also be a helpful moisturizer — but less weighty — when it's an ingredient in other products, like a curl cream.)
It can curb inflammation and acne.
Hydration isn’t the only benefit coconut oil has to offer — the oil’s fatty acids also make it anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, which can potentially help with common skin conditions. For one, since people who have eczema tend to have more bacteria on the skin that can worsen inflammation, these properties can help decrease the bacteria and inflammation, helping ease symptoms, explains Dr. Liu.
But coconut oil isn't as simple as it seems. Although it has the potential to clog pores and cause breakouts, it also contains certain fatty acids that could help fight them too. The oil's linoleic acid may make it a useful treatment for those with acne-prone skin, as their skin may be deficient in this acid, says Dr. Brown. “It's also thought to decrease the amount of acne-causing bacteria and reduce inflammation,” he adds. The oil’s lauric acid, which makes up nearly half of coconut’s fat content, also has antimicrobial properties that may make it beneficial for banishing breakouts. According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, lauric acid can prevent the growth of skin bacteria that can cause inflammatory acne more effectively than benzoyl peroxide (a commonly recommended acne treatment ingredient), and it has the potential to be used as a treatment for acne.
“However, everyone’s skin is different, and some may not tolerate a heavy oil on their skin, as they feel that it clogs their pores,” says Dr. Brown. So before you try using coconut oil as a cleanser to beat inflammation and curb bacteria, talk to your derm about over-the-counter and prescription acne treatments that may be a better fit for you.
It erases stubborn makeup.
When you run out of your go-to makeup remover and need to take off your bold lip and shimmery shadow before bed, you can also use coconut oil as a substitute. “Coconut oil can bind to makeup, which can help remove it from the skin,” says Dr. Brown. “It can be used as a makeup remover for your face and your eyes. Again, it doesn’t work effectively for all.”
If you’re going to give the DIY makeup remover a shot, scoop a spoonful of coconut oil out of the jar and gently massage on the face to whisk away makeup, then immediately follow up with a cleanser, says Dr. Liu. This step is crucial, as coconut oil’s comedogenic properties mean you could wake up with clogged pores and angry zits. Not exactly the fresh and clean look you were going for.
Which Coconut Oil Should You Use for Your Skin?
You don’t need to drop a huge chunk of cash on coconut oil for your skin to glow. In fact, the best coconut oil for skin is your standard oil from the grocery store, just make sure to purchase plain, virgin coconut oil (meaning it’s extracted from fresh, mature coconuts without using high temperatures or chemicals) to ensure it's the best quality, says Dr. Liu. (Steer clear of "refined" coconut oil, since its often chemically bleached and deodorized.) Aside from their easy accessibility, coconut oils are also all-natural and contain just coconut oil, so you won't have to worry about deciphering a long list of ingredients you can barely pronounce. (See: What's the Difference Between Clean and Natural Beauty Products?)
Try Nutiva’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil (Buy It, $18, amazon.com), which comes in a gigantic 54-ounce bottle, for total-body hydration, or the brand’s squeezable pouches (Buy It, $24, amazon.com) for an on-the-go moisturizer.
These days, there are also plenty of products out there that contain coconut oil as a major ingredient. Neither Dr. Liu nor Dr. Brown call out specific coconut oil skin-care products that they'd recommend adding to a regimen, but using a cleanser or moisturizer from a well-known skin-care brand might make you feel a little more comfortable than smearing a glob of oil on your body. (See: I Only Used Coconut Beauty Products for a Week and This Is What Happened)
If you're going to test the coconut oil waters, know that you can find coconut oil for skin in products such as the Amorepacific Treatment Cleansing Oil Makeup Remover (Buy It, $50, sephora.com), which erases makeup while hydrating, and the Bliss Oh, That's Rich Ultra Silky-Sheen Body Cream (Buy It, $18, amazon.com), a luxurious body cream that absorbs in seconds. As always, talk to your derm if you have any Qs or concerns about using coconut oil for skin.
And remember, coconut oil’s ability to lock in all your skin’s moisture and potentially fight acne doesn’t mean it’s the *best* option out there.
“Oils themselves aren't really the best moisturizer because they have no chemical properties to draw or add water to the skin,” says Dr. Liu. “They only act as a seal to prevent water loss. Furthermore, there are other options such as jojoba or marula oil that are less comedogenic and offer similar benefits.”
So if you do wake up with major bacne after covering yourself in coconut oil, talk to your derm about better skin-care options for you, and in the meantime, use the rest of your jar for batches of waffles and muffins for a tropical flavor surprise.