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Reasons Coconut Oil Might Be Bad For Your Skin.


hand holding opened coconut

If you think coconut oil has caused you skin irritation, you are probably right and it may be time to kick coconut oil to the curb. Coconut oil is having a moment and has gained popularity in various skincare routines, but despite what you have heard or read about, it may not be universally beneficial. In this article, I delve into popular uses of coconut oil, key concerns associated with coconut oil and its impact on the skin. I explain how it can cause acne, how its low pH alkalinity can pose problems such as the potential disruption it can cause to the skin's delicate barrier and the microbiome, as well as alternative plant oils that I recommend for everyday use.


Popular Uses of Coconut Oil For Health and Beauty: 

Hair Care: Coconut oil is deeply moisturizing for the hair. When applied to hair strands before shampooing or conditioning it reduces protein loss from hair which can protect hair strands from damage and breakage. 


Dental Health: Many of you may be familiar with the practice of oil pulling for oral health thanks to the antibacterial properties of coconut oil.  


Skin Care: The lauric acid in virgin coconut oil provides antibacterial and antifungal properties which aid in wound healing. That is why you may see it as an ingredient in salves and ointments. In many cultures, virgin unrefined coconut oil has been used for centuries to hydrate dry skin. It is also a popular ingredient in soaps, lotions, creams and deodorant. It is about 20% protectant against UV rays and used in sunscreens but should not be used as the only line of protection. Be sure to use sunscreen too.


 

Key Concerns About Coconut Oil Causing Skin Damage

 

Coconut Oil Causes Acne 

Coconut oil clogs the pores. Coconut oil is classified as comedogenic, which means it has the potential to clog pores and contribute to the development or worsening of acne breakouts of comedones, commonly known as blackheads or whiteheads and might worsen eczema, perioral dermatitis and rosacea. Several factors contribute to coconut oil's comedogenicity:


  • Thick Consistency: Coconut oil has a thick and heavy consistency, made of 90% saturated fat, which can create a physical barrier on the skin's surface. This occlusive property can potentially trap sebum, dead skin cells, and other debris within the pores, leading to pore blockage and the formation of comedones. It also traps heat in the body. The skin is the largest organ of the body and it needs to breathe. In Chinese Medicine we understand that many skin diseases are made worse by or caused by internal trapped heat or external heat invading the body from the environment. We use topical and internal therapies to clear that heat and maintain a healthier environment. Many topical products on the market are thick occlusive ointments formulated with coconut oil, beeswax, or petroleum jelly. These thick ointments are meant for use on small specific regions of the body, not for the whole body, and for short term use until the skin heals. Occlusive ointments are not meant for use all over the body like the way that people slather themselves in coconut oil or coconut lotions daily.

  • High Oleic Acid Content: Coconut oil contains a high concentration of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. Oleic acid has a higher likelihood of clogging pores compared to other fatty acids, such as linoleic acid, which is found in lower quantities in coconut oil. The comedogenicity of oleic acid can vary depending on the individual's skin type and sensitivity. Oleic acid also disrupts the skin barrier because it dries out the skin leading to worsening trans epidermal water loss (TEWL). People with atopic eczema already have a disrupted skin barrier. For individuals with sensitive or reactive skin, it is important to be cautious when incorporating coconut oil into their skincare routine. Olive oil is also high in oleic acid.


  • Individual Skin Sensitivity: There isn’t any one ingredient that is good for everybody. Each person's skin is unique, and individuals with naturally oily or acne-prone skin may be more susceptible to the comedogenic effects of coconut oil. Skin sensitivity and propensity for clogged pores can vary, and some individuals may experience adverse reactions when using coconut oil on their skin. Some people are allergic to coconut oil and using it causes rashes and itching. 



How Coconut Oil Can Cause Skin Barrier Dysfunction 

The Alkalinity Issue: One of the primary concerns with coconut oil is its alkaline nature. The pH scale measures acidity and alkalinity, with 7 being neutral. The skin's natural pH hovers around 4.5 to 5.5, slightly acidic to maintain its protective barrier and optimal functionality. Coconut oil, however, has a pH level ranging from 7 to 9, which is significantly more alkaline than the skin's desired range. This alkaline pH range can increase your risk of Staph aureus infections which is already a concern for people with atopic eczema who are prone to staph infections. It is also a good idea to wash with acidified pH balanced soaps.


Skin Barrier Disruption: The alkalinity of coconut oil can disrupt the skin's barrier function. When the skin's pH is disrupted, it compromises the integrity of the acid mantle—a thin, protective film covering the skin's surface. This acid mantle plays a crucial role in retaining moisture, preventing the entry of harmful pathogens, and maintaining overall skin health. The use of coconut oil, being alkaline, can compromise this delicate balance and lead to various issues. Skin barrier disruption can lead to transepidermal water loss (TEWL) which results in dryness, flakiness, and a compromised skin barrier that is more susceptible to damage and irritation especially on the skin of people with atopic eczema because it can worsen the dermatitis. Many of my eczema clients tell me that they have tried coconut oil but it made the rash worse or didn’t help at all. 


Understanding the Skin Microbiome: The skin microbiome refers to the diverse community of microorganisms, mainly bacteria, that reside on the skin's surface. We want good bacteria on our skin to protect us. This bacterial ecosystem plays a vitally beneficial role in maintaining the skin's health by protecting against pathogens, regulating inflammation, and supporting overall balance. Disrupting the skin microbiome can lead to various skin issues, including dryness, irritation, acne, atopic dermatitis, seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff. 


Coconut Oil and the Microbiome: Unfortunately, coconut oil can have a negative impact on the skin's microbiome. Its antimicrobial properties, often touted as beneficial, can also indiscriminately kill both harmful and beneficial bacteria. This disruption can upset the delicate balance of the microbiome and hinder its ability to perform its vital functions effectively. Coconut oil is 49% lauric acid, the fatty acid which is known for its antibacterial and antifungal properties. If used on a long term daily basis, it is possible that coconut oil could kill off the good microbiome that we need for skin protection whereas short term use for a week or so might be helpful.


It is important to note that different individuals may react differently to coconut oil, and while some may experience minimal disruption, others may see more significant negative effects on their skin microbiome. I usually recommend that people with atopic eczema avoid coconut oil because they are already prone to Staph infections. 


Malassezia yeasts are a fungus naturally present on the skin, but their overgrowth can contribute to the development and exacerbation of seborrheic dermatitis symptoms and fungal acne. Coconut oil is rich in long chain fatty acids which likely encourages Malassezia overgrowth. By the way, olive oil, which is high in oleic acid, can also be problematic to the skin for this and other reasons. 


Unrefined, virgin coconut oil used for short term skin or fungal infections might be the best use as opposed to using it on a daily basis. For example for scalp yeasts that result in flaking dandruff, or for scalp psoriasis using virgin coconut oil 2-3 times per week on the scalp might be helpful. 


What About MCT Oil and Fractionated Coconut Oil?

MCT oil is processed coconut oil. The process changes coconut oil from large chain fatty acids to medium chain fatty acids which is lighter on the skin. But it still contains lauric acid which kills off yeasts and bacteria. For clients that I work with who have candida yeast overgrowth I often recommend taking MCT oil for a few months as an oral supplement to deal with the root of the yeast overgrowth stemming from the gut.


Fractionated coconut oil is highly refined liquified oil which is stripped of long chain fatty acids and lauric acid. So it is commonly found in beauty and skin products as a carrier oil without killing off yeast and bacteria. But that also means if you want to kill the yeast and bacteria it won’t work. There are plenty of other liquid whole plant oils which have not been stripped that offer benefits for your skin.


Whole Plant Oils and Butters I Recommend For Daily Use On Skin:


Sunflower oil

Safflower oil

Jojoba oil

Avocado oil

Sesame oil

Argan oil

Borage oil

Black Seed oil

Shea Butter (whipped is easier to spread than raw)

Cocoa Butter


Mixing a variety of these oils and butters can be a fun way to figure out which blends work best for you. Keep plant oils refrigerated or out of direct sunlight and heat so that they won’t turn rancid. 


Bottom Line: While coconut oil has gained popularity as a skincare ingredient, and may be beneficial for some people, it is crucial to consider its alkalinity, saturated fat content, and potential disruption to the skin's microbiome. It may not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with sensitive or problematic skin conditions. If you use coconut oil on the skin short term it may be helpful to combat yeast and bacteria but long term may be detrimental. Using it on your hair strands regularly, while avoiding the scalp, can be very helpful. 


As with any skincare product, understanding your skin's unique needs and consulting with an appropriately trained and experienced holistic skin expert like myself can help you determine the most appropriate and beneficial choices for maintaining optimal skin health.



Image of a woman touching her face. Text: Revatalize your health transform your life. Juliette Ayana Chinese Medicine & Holistic Health


 

References:


Lambers H, Piessens S, Bloem A, Pronk H, Finkel P. Natural skin surface pH is on average below 5, which is beneficial for its resident flora. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2006;28(5):359-370. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00344.x


Why Coconut Oil Is Good for Your Teeth. Healthline. Published May 5, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/coconut-oil-and-teeth#Oral-hygiene-tips. Accessed February 4, 2024


4 Reasons Why Coconut Oil Is Bad For Your Skin. Skinterrupt. Published May 23, 2019. Accessed February 13, 2024. https://www.skinterrupt.com/coconut-oil-is-bad-for-your-skin/


Korać RR, Khambholja KM. Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation. Pharmacogn Rev. 2011;5(10):164-173. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.91114


Siegfried E, Glenn E. Use of Olive Oil for the Treatment of Seborrheic Dermatitis in Children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2012;166(10):967. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.765


Skowron K, Bauza-Kaszewska J, Kraszewska Z, et al. Human Skin Microbiome: Impact of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Factors on Skin Microbiota. Microorganisms. 2021;9(3):543. Published 2021 Mar 5. doi:10.3390/microorganisms9030543


Varma SR, Sivaprakasam TO, Arumugam I, et al. In vitro anti-inflammatory and skin protective properties of Virgin coconut oil. J Tradit Complement Med. 2018;9(1):5-14. Published 2018 Jan 17. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2017.06.012


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