First of all, it's derived from coconuts and is the same as the thing you use to cook with, but in beauty products, it's used in different, varying ways. "There are many choices when it comes to coconut oil," says Suzanne Audley, an esthetician at Silver Mirror. "The two that we see in skin care are typically virgin coconut oil or fractionated coconut oil." Virgin coconut oil is mostly comprised of 50 percent lauric acid and is a good source of medium-chain triglycerides; meanwhile, according to Audley, fractionated coconut oil is also a good source of MCTs, and it has the bonus of not turning solid, making it a fantastic carrier oil.
Essentially, coconut oil's key function in beauty is hydration. "Coconut oil is a natural moisturizing agent," says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology. But let's get into the specifics.
The benefits of using coconut oil for your face
The natural all-star ingredient is actually anti-inflammatory, and is really good at helping with your skin's outer layer. "Coconut oil is a natural anti-inflammatory, and full of fatty acids that help improve the skin barrier," says Dr. Nazarian. "It also melts into the skin easily with a little gentle rubbing, and it can feel cosmetically elegant. Because of this, it's earned a pretty impressive following of people who love to use it on their skin."
That moisture-bestowing goodness leads to all sorts of complexion perks, from helping on the anti-aging front and fighting certain bacteria on the skin (it's antimicrobial). "Due to the high percentage of lauric acid, which has antimicrobial and soothing effects on the skin, research also suggests that it may even be good at fighting bacteria," says Tami Blake, founder and esthetician at Free+True. This is why some people find it helpful when dealing with acne. "Those medium chain fatty acids have strong antibacterial effects that can help with inflammation." But that said, it may not be quite right for everyone with breakouts.
So what are the downsides?
If you've ever cooked with coconut oil, or touched it at all, you'll know that it's pretty slimy. "It's often too greasy for many people and has a high tendency to clog pores in acne-prone skin," says Dr. Nazarian. In this case, only use it to moisturize skin on your body, like your elbows, knees, etc.
You know how you're often told to look for beauty products that are non-comedogenic? Yeah, well coconut oil's the opposite. "On the comedogenic scale, coconut oil is a four on a one-to-five scale," says Audley. "So if you're prone to clogged pores, coconut oil use on the face may be an issue." Also, it tends to sit on top of your pores and back things up—it's heavy. "It's a heavier oil and can clog pores and cause blackheads, whiteheads, or even breakouts on those with combination, oily, or acne-prone skin," adds Wong.
But it really all depends on the type of coconut oil you're working with. Audley notes that fractionated coconut oil would be a better choice if you get acne because it doesn't solidify. "Fractionated coconut oil has had the long chain fatty acids removed, which keeps the oil in a liquid state—meaning it allows it to penetrate the skin more readily, making it less likely to clog pores," says Blake. Be cautious though, if you have finicky skin. "Just like anything else when it comes to our skin, we are all different," says Audley. "Just because one thing works for one person does not mean it works for everyone. Everyone's skin responds to things differently."
So if you're not a good candidate for using coconut oil on your face, know that you can still reap its multitasking beauty perks for other things. Like a hair mask, or to moisturize those cuticles, or to use instead of a shaving lotion (I love it for this purpose). Or, ya know, you could just stick to using it in the kitchen.
How to choose the right coconut oil
The coconut oil you put on your skin isn't quite the same as the stuff you use to cook with, so it's important to select the right product before slathering it all over your face. The biggest difference? How it's processed. "Coconut oil to use for your face and skincare should be unrefined—otherwise known as "virgin coconut oil"—and either be cold-pressed or centrifuged processed for the highest quality of coconut oil," says Sara Ku, founder of Kaya Essentials, a lifestyle brand that uses coconut oil as the hero ingredient in its skin-care products. The less exposure to heat means that more antioxidants and nutrients are retained." This process tends to be flavorless and odorless, which is why it's better suited for your bathroom sink than your kitchen.
Uses for coconut oil in your skin-care routine
1. As a makeup remover
Coconut oil's also a superstar at cleansing your skin and removing makeup—it gets rid all of that gunk and grime without stripping your face of its natural oils. "It's great for cleansing and removing makeup for those with sensitive skin since it gently but effectively gets rid of dirt and oil," says Cecilia Wong, celebrity facialist.
2. As a facial moisturizer
If you've got the right skin type, coconut oil can be great when used as a moisturizer. "Coconut oil for normal to dry skin can be very hydrating," says Audley, who points out that the ingredient's occlusive nature traps moisture beneath the skin's surface to lock it all in. But this benefit is also why it's not good in other skin types.
3. As a body hydrator
The key to your softest-ever neck down skin is leaning into the "lotion sandwich" method, which involves layering lotion on top of oil. In this situation, consider coconut oil the metaphorical lunch meat. “A body oil will provide a protective barrier to the dry skin and keep your skin texture smooth, while lotion tends to evaporate and not give the same tactile textural improvement you’d get from an oil," Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, MD a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist and the founder Dr. Loretta Skincare, previously told Well+Good. “When you layer an occlusive oil on top of a lotion you get better penetration of the active ingredients in the lotion producing faster and more noticeable hydrating benefits." Ku, who uses her own coconut oil in this way, says that it leaves her skin "soft and supple like I just had a body wrap treatment at the spa.
4. As a scrub
Integrate coconut oil into your exfoliation routine by using it as the base ingredient in a DIY scrub. For something that will help to de-chap dry lips, Ku suggests combining coconut oil with sugar, which will help mechanically slough away dead skin. And if you're looking to ditch dead skin cells on the rest of your body, she recommends mixing the oil with coffee grounds. The coffee grounds are personally a little too harsh to use for my face and lips, but work great as a body scrub for target areas like my feet, butt and decolletage," says Ku.
5. As a lash conditioner
Believe it or not, good, old-fashioned coconut oil offers the same lash-nourishing benefits as some of the fanciest over-the-counter products on the market. "Cconut oil naturally hydrates my lashes which is a great overnight treatment and allows my mascara to glide on better," says Ku, adding that this helps her apply multiple layers of mascara the next day without having to worry about clumping.
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