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.
What is coconut oil good for?
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." It's not for everyone with breakouts though—more on that later.
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.
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.
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.
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