Can Coconut Oil Treat Sunburn?

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on July 24, 2017Written by Annette McDermott

Natural remedies for sunburn

Exposing your skin to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays for too long can cause a painful sunburn. Coconut oil has been touted as a home remedy for sunburns, but does it work? Read on to find out.

Benefits of coconut oil for sunburn

Coconut oil is used to treat many skin conditions, such as dermatitis and eczema. Advocates of coconut oil claim it helps cool and soothe sunburned skin and relieves symptoms such as itching and peeling.

This may be true because coconut oil is high in saturated fats, which are great for moisturizing your skin. Sunburned skin tends to be dry and itchy, so applying coconut oil may help relieve those symptoms by replenishing your skin’s moisture.

How to use it

Don’t apply the coconut oil at the first sign of sunburn. Rather, first apply a cool compress or cool, damp towel to the affected area for 15 minutes to help cool down the skin. You can also take a cool — not cold — bath or shower. Once the skin has cooled (which may take several hours), apply coconut oil to the sunburned area.

What the research says

There’s no scientific evidence proving coconut oil specifically helps sunburn or burns in general. Still, according to a 2012 study, applying lotions or other compounds high in lipids (fats) to a first-degree burn may speed up healing time and reduce dryness.

Lauric acid is a saturated fat in coconut oil. According to a 2014 review, in vivo and in vitro studies have shown that lauric acid has antibacterial abilities against many gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. Hypothetically, applying coconut oil to a sunburn may help prevent infection.

According to an earlier study done on rats and mice, coconut oil has anti-inflammatory and analgesic abilities. It also showed the ability to reduce body temperature.

The research is encouraging, but it’s far from conclusive evidence coconut oil is good for treating sunburn.

What about for protecting against sunburn?

Coconut oil has been touted as a natural sunscreen to help prevent sunburn in the first place. Research has shown coconut oil has an SPF of 7.1, but that’s not nearly enough to protect you from sunburn. It’s true some protection is better than none, but your best defense against sunburn is a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

What you should know before using coconut oil for sunburn

Coconut oil should not be used as the first line of treatment for a sunburn. It may, however, be beneficial after sunburned skin has been cooled with cool water or a cold compress — you should never cool the skin with ice directly, as it may cause more damage to skin tissue.

Using oil to treat burns is a popular folk remedy. The presumption is it provides a barrier against air, bacteria, and infection. But all oils are not created equal. The barrier that’s created when you apply oils that don’t absorb easily, such as cooking oil or butter, may actually trap heat, worsen the burn, and increase pain. Coconut oil, however, absorbs easily into the skin and is not thought to have negative side effects.

Mild sunburns go away without treatment in a few days. However, second- or third-degree burns may require treatment and take more time to heal. Call your doctor if:

  • your sunburn covers most of your body
  • the sunburn causes blisters
  • you have a fever, chills, or headache
  • you have nausea or vomiting
  • you have severe pain
  • you have signs of infection, such as swelling, increased pain, draining pus, or red streaks

To prevent your sunburn from getting worse, avoid sun exposure until it heals. Sunburn increases your risk of dehydration, so drink extra fluids as your skin heals.

Allergic reactions to coconut oil are rare but can occur. If you experience a rash, increased redness, or increased itching after applying coconut oil to your skin, stop using the oil and contact your doctor for advice.

The bottom line

Sunburn treatments don’t heal sunburned skin, but they may make the burn less uncomfortable.

Evidence supporting coconut oil for sunburn treatment is mostly anecdotal. Coconut oil may help moisturize sunburned skin and help minimize itching and peeling, but play it safe and only apply it after your skin has cooled.

For your skin, only use organic, virgin coconut oil that’s been expeller-pressed. Other types of coconut oil may be bleached, contain other oils, or use chemicals during the oil extraction process.

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