Coconut oil can work as a moisturizer — but not by itself, and it isn’t right for everything.
While coconut oil does work to seal moisture into the skin, board certified dermatologist Dr. Purvisha Patel says it shouldn’t replace the moisturizer step in your routine altogether.
“Coconut oil acts as a sealant, as it helps trap water into the skin to keep it moist,” Patel explained. “In doing this, it does act like a moisturizer, but it is still best used over a moisturizer, or on damp skin.”
To bring you up to speed on all the advantages and drawbacks coconut oil has as a moisturizer, we break down everything you need to know about the ingredient, and the best ways to use it, of course.
Coconut oil benefits for your skin
There are several benefits to using coconut oil on the skin.
Prevents water loss
Although maintaining good hygiene is crucial, frequent handwashing, using abrasive products, or bathing too much can cause damage to the stratum corneum part of the skin’s epidermis. The stratum corneum is the topmost layer of skin, which works to prevent water loss and infection.
If this layer continually breaks down, one studyTrusted Source suggests that the skin can become inflamed, susceptible to infection, and, in some people, increase the risk of developing chronic skin inflammation over time.
Hydrating and moisture-repairing products can help. And coconut oil is one of those ingredients that helps the skin retain moisture, says board certified dermatologist Dr. Beth Goldstein.
“Coconut oil can help with cracks and water loss in the top layer of the skin by providing key essential fatty lipids,” Goldstein said. “These lipids improve the barrier function of the skin, allowing it to feel supple and hydrated as a result.”
Contains fatty acids
Much like fatty acids can be beneficial to human health, coconut oil is chock-full of fatty acids that are important in maintaining healthy skin, Goldstein explains.
These include a range of saturated fats and short- and medium-chain fatty acids, including lauric acid.
Lauric acid is particularly known for positive effects on skin health. A 2018 studyTrusted Source revealed that the monolaurin derived from lauric acid exhibits both antiviral and antifungal activity.
Because of these antiviral properties, a 2009 studyTrusted Source revealed that lauric acid can also be potentially useful in alleviating symptoms associated with acne vulgaris.
Then there’s linoleic acid, which is another one of the acids present in coconut oil. But unlike lauric acid, Patel says this acid works to prevent moisture loss.
“Coconut oil has medium-chain fatty acids such as linoleic acid,” she added. “This helps trap water in the skin.”
Tames inflammation associated with certain skin conditions
Because it contains no harsh additives or chemicals, coconut oil, in its purest form, can help help reduce inflammation associated with skin conditions like eczema.
To be more specific, since coconut oil penetrates the skin quickly, the ingredient can be useful in improving skin elasticity and reducing itchiness associated with this skin condition, according to an article from the National Eczema Foundation.
A 2019 study explained that emollient properties of coconut oil also have a positive impact on dermatitis and mild to moderate xerosis, or extremely dry skin.
Is coconut oil a natural sunscreen?
“Coconut oil provides an SPF of 8Trusted Source,” Goldstein said.
But coconut oil shouldn’t replace your daily sunscreen. SPF 8 is very low.
The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using (and reapplying) sunscreen products with SPF 30 or higher to protect your skin from sun damage. So definitely don’t skip actual sunscreens.
How to shop for coconut oil
She goes on to explain that coconut oil can appear as an ingredient in many forms (including coconut alcohol and hydrogenated coconut acid), so it’s important to find products that only use coconut oil extracts, especially if breakouts are a concern or you have naturally oily skin.
“Try to use a product that uses an extract over plain oil,” Goldstein said.
Speaking about a product she helped develop, Goldstein said, “Like other products that use coconut oil extract, The Daily by GETMr. is a suitable option that moisturizes skin without leading to breakouts.”
Patel adds that brands like Kopari and Sol de Janeiro, which makes the Brazilian Bum Bum line, have successfully created products that contain good blends of coconut oil.
And if you’re looking to purchase a jar of coconut oil you can use on your skin and hair, Patel advises selecting products that are both organic and nonhydrogenated.
“Labels that say organic, natural, and nonhydrogenated are preferred to get a better quality coconut oil,” she said. “Cold- or expeller-pressed labels show that oil was extracted in its most pure form.”
If you have allergies or highly sensitive skin, Patel advises exerting caution toward cold-pressed coconut oil products and those that contain additives. They can cause allergic reactions or irritation to the skin.
How to use coconut oil as a moisturizer
Since the need for moisturizing varies from person to person, Goldstein says using coconut oil is a unique experience to everyone.
“Those with dry skin, eczema, etc., will need more maintenance and applications than people with normal skin,” she explained. “However, since there is less humidity during the wintertime, this tends to be the time of year when most people (even with normal skin) look to moisturize their skin.”
To use coconut oil properly, Goldstein advises applying it onto the skin immediately after bathing, when the skin is still just a tad moist. This will help trap water into the stratum corneum, she explains, leaving it feeling supple and silky smooth to the touch.
But while coconut oil can provide your hands, knees, and arms with an instant blast of moisture, Goldstein warns against using it on certain parts of the body. These include the face, chest, or back areas, which are prone to developing breakouts.
In the same vein, you’ll want to avoid using too much coconut oil on areas that contain a lot of hair, since the ingredient contains a thick consistency, she adds.
Using too much coconut oil can plug the follicles, leading to folliculitis — an infection or inflammation of hair follicles — as a result.
Drawbacks of coconut oil as a moisturizer
While coconut oil can be marketed as an effective anti-acne ingredient, Patel says it still contains a very high comedogenic rating, meaning it can clog pores and lead to acne.
And although virgin coconut oil (considered the purest kind of coconut oil) is thought to be noncomedogenic and antiseptic, a 2019 animal study found it to be as comedogenic as the other oils used in the study, which included mustard oil and liquid paraffin.
The study, which involved applying oil to the ears of rabbits, also concluded that none of the oils showed antibacterial properties.
Clogs hair follicles
Goldstein explains that the occlusion of pores creates a perfect microenvironment for hair follicle infections, or folliculitis.
“The typical preparation, containing exclusively coconut oil, may cause occlusion of follicles, resulting in plugging of follicles,” she said, adding areas of occlusion and friction, such as the thighs, are especially prone.
What are other natural oils that can work as moisturizers?
There are plenty of other oils that can also moisturize the skin.
One of the most commonly known oils is extra-virgin olive oil, which is rich in skin-boosting antioxidants.
These antioxidants are also known as phenolic compounds. When applied onto the skin, they exhibitTrusted Source anti-inflammatory properties and may be helpful in reducing oxidative damage.
Sunflower seed oil
Sunflower seed oil is another natural oil to keep on your radar. A 2019 research reviewTrusted Source suggests this oil contains a higher linoleic acid content than olive oil. The review notes it can be very hydrating to adult skin without causing irritation.
Jojoba oil is also jam-packed with moisturizing benefits. This oil contains a high amount of wax esters (fatty acids and fatty alcohols) that may soothe and treat conditions involving an altered skin barrier, including seborrheic dermatitis and acne.
Coconut oil has properties that can help protect and repair the barrier of your skin.
While coconut oil works to seal in moisture, some may find it too oily or occlusive to use on the face.
Goldstein advises using this type of oil on areas without too much hair and to apply just enough. Using too much coconut oil on the face or legs, she adds, can cause breakouts and folliculitis.