Once upon a time, my friend accidentally knocked over a fragile glass vial of my very favorite, very pricey face serum, causing it to shatter on the tile floor. I cried (not really) (but really) as I picked up the shards of glass and wiped up the mess. I was thisclose to forgiving her when she had the audacity to say, “You don’t need all those products anyway—all you really need is coconut oil for your skin.”
Um, what?! I thought. How dare she?! But my rage quickly turned to curiosity. Could she...be...right? Is coconut oil actually the miracle beauty ingredient I’ve been needing all this time but have been avoiding out of fear of causing breakouts and oil slicks?
I mean, sure—people have been talking about coconut oil like it’s magic for ages. Bad breath, underarm B.O., dry hair—coconut oil supposedly cures it all. But it couldn’t possibly be the skincare miracle worker it’s touted to be, right? Right!? Skeptical, I reached out to dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC, to find out what’s true and what’s just beauty BS. Keep reading to find out what you should know before slathering coconut oil all over your face.
What is the benefit of coconut oil?
This would be the longest article ever if we went over all the uses and potential benefits of coconut oil for your overall health and even hair, so let's keep this focused on what it can do for the skin (since that's really why you're here, right?). In general, skincare oils help the skin's lipid barrier retain moisture. Coconut oil, in particular, is non-fragrant plant oil that's full of fatty acids, like linoleic acid and lauric acid (more on what those are and how they work for the skin below. Keep reading!), has antibacterial properties, and works as an emollient (moisturizer) to soften the skin.
Is coconut oil a good moisturizer?
Although coconut oil is generally praised for being a great, hydrating moisturizer, thanks to its fatty-acid content, technically, oils are best when used as a seal in the final step in your skincare routine to lock in all the humectants from the products applied before it (like serums and moisturizers), rather than as a hydrators themselves. So if you’re really amped up about dipping your body in coconut oil, make sure to apply it over a layer of moisturizer to make it most effective.
Is it okay to use coconut oil on your face?
There’s one caveat to the whole coconut-oil thing: breakouts. Some people swear coconut oil is the ultimate DIY treatment for acne, while others promise it’ll break you out as soon as it touches your skin. The internet is a fun place where you can find arguments to support literally any idea (flat-Earth conspiracy, anyone?), which is why it can be difficult to figure out the truth about coconut oil and acne. So here are the facts, straight from an actual doctor:
“Coconut oil may be useful in treating acne-prone skin, because it has high levels of skin-soothing linoleic acid—something that’s deficient in the skin of people with acne,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It also contains lauric acid, which is thought to be antimicrobial, so it may lower levels of acne-causing bacteria on the skin and reduce inflammation.”
That being said, a ton of people with acneic or oily skin still find coconut oil too heavy and comedogenic (pore-clogging) for their faces. “Everyone is different,” says Dr. Zeichner. “If you prefer a natural face oil, you can certainly try coconut oil on your skin, but if it ends up breaking you out, you’ll know it’s too heavy for you.”
In short, it might help or it might make things worse. I know, I know—life’s not fair. And if that answer isn’t clear enough for you, stick to the acne ingredients and treatments that have been thoroughly studied and proven to work, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.
The final takeaway
Unless you consider possible breakouts “harmful,” coconut oil is pretty harmless to try, according to Dr. Zeichner. Is it the magical, wonderful, multipurpose skincare ingredient it’s touted to be? Eh, probably not, or the entire world would be happily using it and the shelves of Sephora would be stocked with it.
As a cleanser and makeup remover, yes, it works (but can also leave a residue behind that might clog pores), and as a last-step facial oil, sure, it’ll lock in your moisture. But as far as being an integral part of your acne skincare routine, what works for you might not work for me—and, realistically, probably won’t work as well as other tried-and-true treatments out there. Still, if you live life on the edge and are willing to give coconut oil a go, you’re a brave, brave soul. As for me and my acne-prone face, though, we’ll be sticking to the pricey serums and acne products that I know will, for a fact, work, TYVM.