Many of us seeking healthier, more natural skin care alternatives are ditching conventional creams and moisturizers and reaching instead for pure, virgin coconut oil. Look online and you'll see the virtues of coconut as a moisturizer extolled over and over again, and studies supporting the topical application of coconut oils to improve dry skin conditions and combat acne. I am absolutely thrilled when I speak to someone who is using coconut with good results!
There are many studies showing coconut oil can decrease skin dryness and reduce the levels of acne causing bacteria on the skin, but I get enough reports indicating that not everyone is getting good results. Take a look around the internet and you’ll read enough anecdotal evidence suggesting additional studies are certainly warranted.
Most negative reports come from those with normal to dry skin, and those who get clogged pores and break outs. Those who suffer from both conditions fare the worst. They describe their skin becoming dry and flaky, often complaining of new bumps, clogged pores and comedones, and even dry patches with new outbreaks and bumps. This might happen right away, or after some time after starting using coconut as a “moisturizer”. This makes it harder to pinpoint what is the cause of the problem. Many resort to using more and more to heal their dry skin, and the problem continues.
Dry, itchy, flaky skin are the first signs of an impaired “lipid barrier”, the top layer of skin which holds in moisture, reducing dermal water loss to evaporation. A strong lipid barrier also resists penetration by the acne causing bacteria which live on our skin. When impaired it becomes vulnerable to penetration by the these pathogenic bacteria. Once they penetrate the skin's first line of defense, and even though coconut oil has proven antibacterial qualities, it is not enough to now control outbreaks. The result is often dry patches of skin with bumps and clogged pores which can erupt into pimples and acne.
So what's GOING ON?
Acute or Chronic dry skin? The first thing to do is determine what is causing or contributing to the dry skin condition. Is it acute dry skin (dehydration)? Or a “dry skin type” which is a native and lifelong condition - dry skinned people have less oil producing pores on their whole body.
Food Sensitivities? I explain how adults develop food sensitivities and how that might manifest in skin issues.
Pore Clogging? I explain the "Comedogenic Rating" of coconut oil and how that applies to eating coconut oil, and using it topically.
What can soap tell us about oils? I explain a little about the fatty acid composition of different fats and oils and how that can inform our choices in skin care.
Alternatives? Finally I list 2 oils I love to use straight on my skin! You might love them too.
WHO PROBABLY WON'T GET GOOD RESULTS USING COCONUT OIL TO MOISTURIZE? Those with “dehydrated” dry skin may develop issues with the regular/daily use of coconut oil especially if applied to skin without dampness. You are likely to see a development and/or worsening of itchy, dry, flaky skin.
Those with dry skin AND prone to outbreaks, clogged pores, bumps, comedones beware! - you condition may worsen.
AND WHO MIGHT! If you have an oily skin type which does not break out, and/or live in a year-round humid climate (ie tropical and sub-tropical places) then you might be among the lucky one’s who can use coconut oil as a moisturizer and get good results!
SKIN TYPE AND INFORMED CHOICES: Water Dry or Oil Dry
What might be at the root of the dry skin issue you are trying to resolve?
Perhaps you are struggling with acutely dry skin - Maybe it is winter time, cold and dry. Maybe you by accident dried out your skin using a clay mask, or too much acne treatment, chemical peel, over exfoliating. The list goes on.
Perhaps you are seeking a more “natural” alternative to conventional creams and lotions and began to notice some undesirable outcomes with using coconut oil.
Maybe you have less oil producing glands on your body, scalp, and face and need “moisturizing” all year, especially in winter.
Before delving into more of the specifics of coconut oil in skincare, it might be a good idea to head over to to my blog post Are seed oils moisturizing? A cautionary tale. Where I discuss how to determining your current skin condition versus your native skin type.
It might seem like I am splitting hairs, but this is VERY important to this tease out - it WILL inform your decision on how to choose the right skin care at the right time.
FOOD SENSITIVES - COULD COCONUT OIL BE A FACTOR IN ACNE?
To start, let's look at food sensitivities. Yes, coconut oil is a healthy traditional food, yet very few people know that it can negatively impact our skin from the inside.
Over exposure to novel foods after childhood can cause food sensitivities which often manifest in skin issues. A full blown allergy to coconut and coconut oil are, in fact, rare, but over exposure to novel foods after childhood can cause “sensitivities” (different from allergies) which often manifest in skin issues.
The vast majority of American's over 20 did not grow up consuming coconuts and coconut oil from a very early age! It was deemed unhealthy due to its high saturated fat content. During the tragic decades when saturated fat was falsely demonized as killers, we were told to avoid it so we did! Now that this false doctrine has been dismantled we are returning to cooking and eating coconut oil again.
And herein might lie a problem; unless you grew up eating coconuts at an early age, or come from an ethnicity which historically consumed lots of them, you might have developed a sensitive to this food! So if you suspect you are sensitive to it, I would consider eliminating coconut oil from your diet and skin care products for a period of time and see what results you get.
PORE CLOGGER? IT’S RATED 4!
Next, for those who have acneic skin, get clogged pores, blemishes and outbreaks, or maybe you can “dry” skin and still get acne outbreaks it’s important to consider the pore clogging potential of your skin care,
It should not be overlooked as comedogenic when consumed as well.
Comedogenic (or the more popular term acnegenic) refers to the likelihood an ingredient will cause acne.
An ingredient with a lower number is considered less comedogenic.
On most Comedogenic (clog poring) Ratings Charts Coconut oil is among the ingredients which gets the highest ratings - a whopping "4"! Controlled studies have been performed which support these findings.
That said, everyone is unique and will have different reactions to different things and the way that ingredients are tested has been called into question. These Comedogenic Rating charts are a starting point in determining YOUR tolerance and options for choosing products right for you.
0 - An oil which is very, VERY unlikely to cause, contribute to, or make clogged pores worse.
1 – A slight chance that this oil will cause, contribute to, or make clogged pores worse.
2 - Most people this oil will not cause, contribute to, or make clogged pores worse. HOWEVER, those who DO tend to develop clogged pores might find this oil to cause, contribute, or make clogged pores worse over time.
3 – A lot of people will break out using this oil, but some will not. If you tend to get clogged pores and outbreaks this oil will most likely cause, contribute, or make clogged pores worse over time.
4 - The majority of people will break out using this oil.
5 - Basically a guaranteed of breaking out. Very, very, VERY few people can tolerate oils with a rating of 5.
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WHAT IS COMEDOGENIC OR ACNEGENIC? The technical term for acne is Comedo. Comedo is formed from dead skin cells and skin oils (sebum). If the comedo is closed at the skin's surface, it's a "whitehead". When it's open at the skin's surface, and you can see the plugged follicle darkened by melanin buildup, it's a blackhead. If there is no opening at the surface, it's a "closed Comedone).
IS NON-COMEDOGENIC A VALID CLAIM? There is no way, no how, any skincare manufacture can verify that their product is not going to cause acne. No independent organization, nor the FDA, verifies “non-comedogenic” claims and no tests exist which can objectively determine this. Any company can claim the term “non-comedogenic” or “won’t clog pores” on its label, but there is no oversight body which will independently verify this.
WHAT CAN OLIVE OIL SOAP TELLS US ABOUT COCONUT OIL?
Few people are knowledgable of the fatty acid composition of different fats and oils, let alone the effects when applied topically. Some fatty acids are considered "dry" or astringent, while others are considered emollient. Castile Soap tells the story best what this can mean.
Once upon a time, Castile soap meant 100% Olive Oil Soap, made with just the pressed oil from the olive fruit. It was very, very expensive and available only to the richest people and royalty. It got it’s name from the Castile Region of Spain, where Olive Oil soap originates. The mass of humanity at that time made “rustic” soap at home with animal fats. Castile Soap, on the other hand, was a very fine, often perfumed soap, produced by secretive guilds who closely guarded their recipes.
100% Olive Oil soap is still made today, and I have made it often in the past. It’s delightful - extremely conditioning and emollient, it won’t dry out even the most sensitive skin. The down side? A bar of olive oil soap becomes slimy and melts very quickly. Instead, most soap makers use other oils to make the bars harder, longer lasting, and less slimy.
Just like “Kleenex” now means “facial tissue”, today we call ANY pure oil soap made from ANY vegetable oil “Castile” - and this is where problems arise. The distinction doesn’t really matter when choosing tissues but it makes a really big difference when choosing soap.
Most big commercial brands of natural oil soaps use mostly coconut oil as the base and label them Castile. And this matters - a lot. Honestly it is a shame that Castile Soap now just means “oil soap”, and not the lovely, deep green soap from the past. Sadly, many people looking for natural soap often end up trying the big brands of “Castile” - only to discover it’s hidden dangers.
FATTY ACID COMPOSITION AND WHY IT MATTERS iN A BATH SOAP
It comes down to the fatty acid composition of the fat or oil you are using to make a soap. Every oil has a unique fatty acid profile. Some oils and fats saponify into an emollient, conditioning soap appropriate for hands and body, but which might not bubble or lather well - that’s olive oil soap! It’s so gorgeous, green and expensive! It leaves skin feeling amazing - but it will never be a “hard” bar, it feels slimy and melts quickly, making it pretty impractical for most.
Now compare that to Coconut Oil Soap. It falls on the other end of the spectrum. A very hard bar with big bubbles. We now call this Castile also - but it is nothing like real Castile!
The primary fatty acid in Coconut oil is Lauric Acid it is considered a dry, astringent fatty acid. Soap makers know this - 100% coconut oil soap makes a really hard, long lasting bar of soap. It lathers up big and bubbly, and cleans extremely well - quickly and efficiently stripping away oils and removing greasy residue. A bar of 100% coconut oil soap makes the best stain stick and laundry detergent, and gets pots and pans clean quick.
But the same qualities which make it great for household chore makes it NOT so nice for your skin! 100% Coconut oil soap, or even soap with over 60% will, used regularly, cause or worsen dryness, itching and flaking. Pure Coconut oil applied topically over time can cause the same issues.
TRY THESE APPLIED TO DAMP SKIN!
Please by no means think I avoid coconut oil entirely; it has an important role to play in many of my creations including a bit of it in most of soaps and some salves, butters, lotions, and sometimes in my cleansing oils blends.
“Cleansing Oils” are “astringent” in nature and are meant to wiped and rinsed off. Coconut oil does makes a great eye make-up remover.
I DO NOT include it in my facial oil and body oil blends! For these applications I choose oils with more emollient properties and a fatty acid ratio more suitable for leaving on the skin. These are often refer to as “Treatment Oils” and there are THOUSANDS to choose from.
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Here ARE 2 of my favorite OILs for nourishing and conditioning skin.
When applied to damp skin THESE oils function as simple “moisturizers”.
SWEET ALMOND OIL
Sweet Virgin Organic Almond Oil - Ancient cultures revered this emollient nut oil for treating dry skin conditions. It has been used to improve complexion and skin tone, and treat skin problems for thousands of years including psoriasis and eczema and to reduce scarring. It smoothes and rejuvenates skin, absorbs quickly with a golden hue and subtle, nutty aroma. It has a long shelf life and is rich in many vitamins and minerals. Easy to find in the skin care isle just about anywhere, this in one of my favorites - affordable and effective and with a low comedogenic rating of 2.
OLIVE OIL SQUALANE
One of my absolute, favorite luxury facial oils! Some of you will know something about Squalane. Recently is has been studied for its almost miraculous "healthy-aging" and skin softening properties. Squalane is one of the lipids found in Olive Oil. Our skin produces its own version of this vital oil, but over time produces less and less of it. It finds it’s way into may high end skin care products and can be very pricey depending on the brand.
Squalane is renown for its ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It soaks in fast and leaves almost no residue! It is very resistant to rancidity and gets a comedogenic rating of 0. It is scentless and clear. It can be extracted from olives and also from shark liver oil. So if you purchase some yourself, make sure it says “pure olive oil squalane”.
I included Olive Oil Squalane in my Facial Oil Blends - I only include Squalane derived from Olive Oil in my creations.
Won’t you join the conversation? I would love to know how you discovered my article and what information you are looking for. Scroll down, the comment section is below my citations. Thanks for visiting!
Skin hydration - How water and osmolytes influence biophysical properties of stratum corneum https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/5522794/3787607.pdf
DRY SKIN— IT’S A SURE THING: a look at epidermal lipids. Diana L. Howard, Ph.D. . 2005. http://business.dermalogica.com/eBusinessCenter/assets/training_education/article_library/skin_zone/May05_DrySkin_Howard.pdf
Moisturizers: What They Are and a Practical Approach to Product Selection https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2a5f/2cbc8c9989b77910619b9d0ba6e7b768aea5.pdf
Natural (Mineral, Vegetable, Coconut, Essential) Oils and Contact Dermatitis https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321669861_Natural_Mineral_Vegetable_Coconut_Essential_Oils_and_Contact_Dermatitis