What is Coconut Oil? Whether Its Healthy, How to Use It, and Everything Else to Know

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

Coconut oil is a tropical oil derived from — you guessed it — the flesh of coconuts. In stores, you’ll see both virgin and refined coconut oil. The specific type you’re buying will be indicated on the front label. Virgin coconut oil is less processed than the refined version, and that preserves its sweet, coconut-y tropical flavor. Refined coconut oil goes through more processing, which leads to a more neutral smell and flavor. Because it doesn’t have that telltale tropical taste, you can use the refined kind as a main cooking oil for a variety of recipes.

Coconut Oil Nutrition Facts, Including How Many Calories It Has

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these are the nutrition facts for a 1 tablespoon serving of coconut oil.

Calories 121 Protein 0 grams (g) Fat 13.5 g Saturated fat 11.2 g Carbohydrates 0 g Fiber 0 g Sugar 0 g

That’s very similar to other oils. For instance, a tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories and 13.5 g of fat.

When Compared With Olive Oil, Is Coconut Oil a Healthy Fat?

The difference lies in the types of fat each contains. As you can see, coconut oil is made of mostly saturated fat (it’s 83 percent saturated fat) and therefore is listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate guidelines as a less healthy fat compared to one like olive oil, which has only 1.9 g of saturated fat (14 percent; the remainder is healthy unsaturated fats). The American Heart Association recommends that an average person who eats 2,000 calories per day limit their saturated fat intake to 13 g. As you can see, eating 1 tablespoon of coconut oil would nearly get you to that limit, so, particularly when compared with olive oil, coconut oil is not a healthy fat.

Because of its saturated fat content, coconut oil garnered a reputation as an unhealthy, artery-clogging oil, and many experts still recommend avoiding it. But in recent years, in some people’s eyes, it’s experienced a total turnaround — and many people eat coconut oil to try to boost their health.

Possible Health Benefits and Risks of Coconut Oil

The health benefits of coconut oil aren’t so cut-and-dried; in fact, it’s a very controversial topic. Take one Harvard University professor's comment that coconut oil is reines Gift, or "pure poison," in a viral video of a talk she gave in Germany. (In the video, Business Insider Deutschland reports, the professor, Karin Michels , also says in German that the trendy oil is "one of the worst foods you can eat.")

On one hand, advocates of consuming coconut oil acknowledge that it’s high in saturated fat, which has been implicated in increased heart disease risk. But they point out that there’s something unique about the saturated fat found in the tropical oil: It’s rich in a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid, which may behave differently in the body from other saturated fats.

Why? Because of these fatty acids, coconut oil may, in fact, improve “good” HDL cholesterol levels. One study in Nutrition Reviews notes that while saturated-fat-rich coconut oil raises total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels more than unsaturated plant oils, it didn’t do so by as much as butter.

One randomized clinical trial in BMJ Open looked at the health result of consuming about 1.75 ounces of extra-virgin coconut oil, butter, or extra-virgin olive oil daily for four weeks. Much as previous research has shown, butter upped LDL levels more than coconut and olive oils. Coconut also increased HDL levels more than butter or olive oil. While this wasn’t a study on weight loss (so no one was told to, say, cut calories), the researchers note that no one in the groups lost (or gained) weight or belly fat by adding any of these fats.

Concerns about coconut oil’s saturated fat prevent many experts from recommending it. But even the idea that saturated fat is bad for the heart isn’t universally accepted. A recommendation from top nutrition and health researchers on behalf of the American Heart Association recommended that people replace saturated with unsaturated fats to reduce heart disease risk. Likewise, a review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology on the health effects of coconut oil suggest that people avoid it because of the high levels of saturated fat, which they note can raise LDL cholesterol, making you more prone to conditions like heart disease.

But other research, including some in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to recommend making this switch. Someone could jump to the conclusion that if saturated fat isn’t all that bad, and coconut oil’s fatty acids may even be health-promoting, they have carte blanche to eat it. The facts as they stand are that the effect of coconut oil on health isn’t quite clear.

The reality may be that when placed in the typical standard American diet (dubbed the SAD diet), coconut oil may behave differently. The entirety of your eating habits may matter more than whether or not you include this oil. Baseline heart disease rates may be lower in South Asian cultures, which frequently consume coconut oil, and that may not be the case if the oil is included in any diet.

One potential benefit: Medium-chain fatty acids like lauric acid are quickly broken down by the body and converted into energy, which is why the oil is often included in weight loss diets. As the Mayo Clinic points out, a few small studies suggest that it may benefit your waistline, but it doesn’t have any measurable effect on BMI. And long-term effects on weight loss aren’t known.

Plus, as the Mayo Clinic mentions, just because something may be metabolized quickly doesn’t mean you can have a field day. Coconut oil still contains calories, and eating more than your body needs will likely result in weight and fat gain.

Another plus of coconut oil is that it remains stable under heat, meaning it’s not as likely as other oils to oxidize and create harmful compounds like free radicals during cooking. Different types of coconut oil are suitable for different cooking methods. Virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit (F) — meaning you can heat it up to that temperature before it begins to smoke and oxidize; refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point, of 400 degrees F, allowing you more leeway.

How to Use Coconut Oil in Your Beauty Routine

Beyond cooking, coconut oil really shines as a beauty product. You can use it on your hair as an in-shower mask to add a boost of moisture, or smooth a bit on dry hair to tame frizz. On skin, coconut oil can be used as a lip balm or as a body moisturizer. Extra-virgin coconut oil is your best bet when you’re using it for your body or hair.

Even better, there are science-backed reasons for applying coconut oil topically. A double-blind study comparing virgin coconut oil with olive oil on the ability to moisturize skin in people suffering from atopic dermatitis, or eczema (an inflammatory skin condition with symptoms like redness and itchiness) found that coconut oil reduced symptoms better than olive. Coconut oil was also superior in clearing staphylococcus aureus (or a staph infection) from the skin (in 95 percent of cases) compared with olive oil (in 50 percent of cases), suggesting that the tropical oil has antifungal and antiviral properties.

In terms of those antifungal abilities, in a study in the journal Neonatology, using coconut oil on the skin of preterm infants improved the skin condition of the neonates better than typical routine care.

Parents can be confident slathering it on their older kids’ skin, too. In children with atopic dermatitis, using virgin coconut oil for eight weeks relieved skin dryness better than mineral oil. In fact, 93 percent of those using coconut oil saw a moderate or excellent improvement, while 53 percent of those using mineral oil did.

Bottom line: Along with stashing a jar of coconut oil in your kitchen, you may want to keep one in your bathroom, too.