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What Can Coconut Oil Do for Your Skin?

woman applying lotion on face
Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD - Blogs
By Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MDBoard-certified dermatologistNovember 29, 2018

It’s all-natural, soothes and softens the complexion, and evokes memories of sunny beach days and tropical beverages – no wonder coconut oil has emerged as a wildly popular skincare ingredient.

While there’s not yet enough evidence that consuming coconut oil will benefit your skin, research suggests that applying it to the surface of your skin might really help.

Coconut oil — extracted from the white, pulpy portion of this palm tree nut — is rich in free fatty acids that, according to small human studies, can improve skin hydration, reduce itching, dryness, and rashes, including eczema. Some of those fatty acids can also reduce common germs that live on the skin (including Staph aureus) that are known for riling up eczema. Research on premature babies and children with mild to moderate eczema showed that twice-daily applications of virgin coconut oil reduced the severity of skin disease, improved the skin’s ability to retain moisture, and enhanced the skin’s barrier function – leading to a healthier, less-itchy, more supple complexion. And it’s not just the greasy texture that seems to have a beneficial effect. In studies comparing virgin coconut oil to virgin olive oil or mineral oil, virgin coconut oil outperformed the other oils as a moisturizer, natural germ-fighter, and rash-calming ingredient.

But for many people suffering from common forms of eczema (such as atopic dermatitis or nummular dermatitis), coconut oil is simply not enough to control itching and rash. Many dermatologists consider plain ointments (such as petroleum jelly or Aquaphor) and thick, unscented creams to be more effective moisturizers. Your dermatologist can help guide you through gentle skincare techniques to maximize your skin’s health and can prescribe topical (or even systemic) medicines when they are necessary. And if a coconut-containing product ever seems to make your skin redder or itchier, be suspicious – certain derivatives of coconut oil, including cocamide diethanolamine, are known for causing allergic skin reactions. And finally, don’t forget that coconut oil is comedogenic – meaning, it could clog pores and worsen acne – so it shouldn’t be applied over blemish-prone areas.

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About the Author
Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD

Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD, is a Stanford-trained dermatologist, former Glamour beauty editor, and journalist who has written for The New York Times, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, Women’s Health, and other publications. She has made many television appearances and co-hosted The Dermatology Show on Sirius-XM throughout medical school. Her personal skincare blog can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

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