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Coconut oil can work as a moisturizer, but is it right for you?

While coconut oil does work to seal moisture into the skin, board certified dermatologist Dr. Purvisha Patel says it shouldn’t replace the moisturizer step in your routine altogether.

“Coconut oil acts as a sealant, as it helps trap water into the skin to keep it moist,” Patel explained. “In doing this, it does act like a moisturizer, but it is still best used over a moisturizer, or on damp skin.”

To bring you up to speed on all the advantages and drawbacks coconut oil has as a moisturizer, we break down everything you need to know about the ingredient and the best ways to use it.

There are several benefits to using coconut oil on your skin. It can:

  • prevent water loss
  • contain fatty acids
  • reduce inflammation
  • improve elasticity
  • reduce itchiness
  • help skin conditions like eczema, dermatitis, and xerosis

Prevents water loss

Although maintaining good hygiene is crucial, frequent handwashing, using abrasive products, or bathing too much can cause damage to the stratum corneum part of your skin’s epidermis. The stratum corneum is the topmost layer of skin, which works to prevent water loss and infection.

If this layer continually breaks down, one study suggests that your skin can become inflamed, be susceptible to infection, and, in some people, have an increased risk of developing chronic skin inflammation over time.

Hydrating and moisture-repairing products can help. And coconut oil is one of those ingredients that helps your skin retain moisture, says board certified dermatologist Dr. Beth Goldstein.

Boosts elasticity and moisture

According to a 2020 review, virgin coconut oil (VCO) containing solid lipid particles increased skin hydration by 24.8 percent and skin elasticity by 2.6 percent over 28 days compared with body lotion that didn’t contain coconut oil.

“Clinical studies have revealed that VCO is effective and safe to use as a moisturizer and can improve skin hydration and accelerate healing in the skin,” noted the review.

Contains fatty acids

Much like fatty acids can be beneficial to human health, coconut oil is chock-full of fatty acids that are important in maintaining healthy skin, Goldstein explains.

These include a range of saturated fats and short- and medium-chain fatty acids, including lauric acid.

According to a 2019 study, these medium-chain fatty acids help contribute to skin elasticity and suppleness.

Lauric acid is particularly known for positive effects on skin health. A 2018 study revealed that the monolaurin derived from lauric acid exhibits both antiviral and antifungal activity.

“Coconut oil can help with cracks and water loss in the top layer of the skin by providing key essential fatty lipids,” Goldstein said. “These lipids improve the barrier function of the skin, allowing it to feel supple and hydrated as a result.”

Because of these antibacterial properties, a 2009 study revealed that lauric acid can also be potentially useful in alleviating symptoms associated with acne vulgaris.

Then there’s linoleic acid, which is another one of the acids present in coconut oil. But unlike lauric acid, Patel says this acid works to prevent moisture loss.

“Coconut oil has medium-chain fatty acids such as linoleic acid,” she added. “This helps trap water in the skin.”

Tames inflammation associated with certain skin conditions

Because it contains no harsh additives or chemicals, coconut oil in its purest form can help reduce inflammation associated with skin conditions like eczema.

To be more specific, since coconut oil penetrates the skin quickly, the ingredient can be useful in improving skin elasticity and reducing itchiness associated with this skin condition, according to an article from the National Eczema Foundation.

A 2018 study also noted coconut oil’s function in wound healing by supporting :

  • blood vessel growth
  • connective tissue growth
  • pepsin-soluble collagen synthesis
  • collagen turnover

Collagen plays a major role in skin elasticity.

A 2019 study explained that emollient properties of coconut oil also have a positive impact on dermatitis and mild to moderate xerosis, or extremely dry skin.

When it comes to coconut oil, the ingredients should be just that: coconut oil. However, coconut oil may come in the form of coconut alcohol or hydrogenated coconut oil or acid.

To avoid this, look for coconut oil that’s:

  • nonhydrogenated
  • cold-pressed or expeller-pressed
  • organic
  • food-grade

Shopping for coconut oil? Keep a few things in mind.

As a food-grade oil

If you’re looking to purchase a jar of coconut oil you can use on your skin and hair, Patel advises selecting products that are both organic and nonhydrogenated.

“Labels that say organic, natural, and nonhydrogenated are preferred to get a better quality coconut oil,” she said. “Cold- or expeller-pressed labels show that oil was extracted in its most pure form.”

If you have allergies or highly sensitive skin, Patel advises using caution toward products that contain additives. They can cause allergic reactions or irritation to the skin.

As an ingredient in personal care products

Many personal care products use coconut oil as an ingredient to add smoothness to the texture of the product and to make it easier to spread, Goldstein says.

It may be preferable to use coconut oil extracts over plain oil, especially if breakouts are a concern or you have naturally oily skin.

“Try to use a product that uses an extract over plain oil,” Goldstein said.

Speaking about a product she helped develop, Goldstein said, “Like other products that use coconut oil extract, The Daily by GETMr. is a suitable option that moisturizes skin without leading to breakouts.”

Patel adds that brands like Kopari and Sol de Janeiro, which makes the Brazilian Bum Bum line, have successfully created products that contain good blends of coconut oil.

In general, you can follow these steps to use coconut oil as a moisturizer:

  1. After bathing, pat your skin down with a towel until it’s moist, not wet.
  2. Add coconut oil to your palms and rub together to warm.
  3. Spread a thin layer of oil over your skin in a circulation motion.
  4. Avoid your face, chest, back, and any other areas prone to acne.
  5. Also avoid areas with a lot of hair.
  6. Add more oil as needed.

Alternatively, you can massage your body with oil and then wash off the excess.

Since the need for moisturizing varies from person to person, Goldstein says using coconut oil is a unique experience to everyone.

“Those with dry skin, eczema, etc. will need more maintenance and applications than people with normal skin,” she explained. “However, since there is less humidity during the wintertime, this tends to be the time of year when most people (even with normal skin) look to moisturize their skin.”

To use coconut oil properly, Goldstein advises applying it onto your skin immediately after bathing, when your skin is still just a tad moist. This will help trap water into the stratum corneum, she explains, leaving it feeling supple and silky smooth to the touch.

While coconut oil can provide your hands, knees, and arms with an instant blast of moisture, Goldstein warns against using it on certain parts of your body. These include your face, chest, or back areas, which are prone to developing breakouts.

You’ll also want to avoid using too much coconut oil on areas that contain a lot of hair, since the ingredient has a thick consistency, she adds.

Coconut oil shouldn’t replace your daily sunscreen. It doesn’t offer enough sun protection to meet even the minimum FDA recommendation of SPF 15.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using (and reapplying) sunscreen products with SPF 30 or higher to protect your skin from sun damage. So definitely don’t skip actual sunscreens.

However, coconut oil can provide moisture and nutrition for after-sun skin care.

Drawbacks of coconut oil may include:

  • clogged pores
  • acne
  • clogged hair follicles
  • potential infection, known as folliculitis
  • allergic reaction

Coconut oil is safe to use for most people. Still, those with nut allergies should use caution. Always do a patch test before you try a new ingredient on your skin.

While coconut oil has been marketed as an effective anti-acne ingredient, Patel says it still contains a very high comedogenic rating, meaning it can clog pores and lead to acne.

Coconut oil is considered to be comedogenic, which means it can clog pores.

Goldstein explains that the blockage of pores creates a perfect microenvironment for hair follicle infections, or folliculitis.

“The typical preparation, containing exclusively coconut oil, may cause occlusion of follicles, resulting in plugging of follicles,” she said. Areas of occlusion and friction, such as the thighs, are especially prone.

Using too much coconut oil can plug the follicles, leading to folliculitis — an infection or inflammation of hair follicles.

There are plenty of other oils that can also moisturize your skin, including:

  • olive oil
  • sunflower seed oil
  • jojoba oil
  • almond oil
  • sesame oil
  • argan oil

Olive oil

One of the most commonly known oils is extra-virgin olive oil, which is rich in skin-boosting antioxidants.

These antioxidants are also known as phenolic compounds. When applied to your skin, they exhibit anti-inflammatory properties and may be helpful in reducing oxidative damage.

Sunflower seed oil

Sunflower seed oil is another natural oil to keep on your radar. A 2018 research review suggests this oil contains a higher linoleic acid content than olive oil. The review notes it can be very hydrating to adult skin without causing irritation.

Jojoba oil

Jojoba oil is also jam-packed with moisturizing benefits. This oil contains a high amount of wax esters (fatty acids and fatty alcohols) that may soothe and treat conditions involving an altered skin barrier, including seborrheic dermatitis and acne.

Coconut oil has properties that can help protect and repair the barrier of your skin.

While coconut oil works to seal in moisture, some people may find it too oily or clogging to use on their face.

Goldstein advises using this type of oil on areas without too much hair and to apply just enough. Using too much coconut oil on your face or legs, she adds, can cause breakouts and folliculitis.