This past Christmas, my aunt gifted each of her sisters a jumbo jar of coconut oil because she loves it so much. She keeps a jar in the kitchen (it’s her favorite way to make light and airy stovetop popcorn) and a jar in the bathroom, where she slathers the coconut oil on her skin instead of regular lotion.
Despite my aunt’s enthusiasm, my mom—who has notoriously sensitive skin—was skeptical about using coconut oil, especially when I told her I used it to treat my dog’s seasonal eczema with mixed success. Still, she tried it one night instead of her favorite nighttime facial moisturizer. The next morning, my mother woke up with a rash of angry, red bumps all over the lower part of her face and neck.
My mom is far from the only one to suffer this same fate, which is why, to put it bluntly, I’m completely flummoxed by the fact that coconut oil continues to be touted as a great natural facial skincare solution.
We talked to dermatologists to find out why you shouldn’t use coconut oil on your face. Here’s what they had to say.
Coconut oil is comedogenic.
“Coconut oil has one of the highest comedogenic ratings, which means that it could be a big problem for sensitive or blemish-prone skin,” explains dermatologist Paul Dean, MD, creator of Skin Resource.MD. “This means coconut oil can’t penetrate the pores and actually can suffocate your skin and will clog your pores because it sits on top of the skin.”
What is a comedogenic rating? Essentially, beauty products are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 based on their pore-clogging potential, with 1 being the least likely to clog your pores, and 5 being reserved for the worst offenders.
The scale doesn’t mean that every single product that’s considered highly comedogenic will clog your pores and cause breakouts, though. A lot of factors—like pore size and how oily or dry your skin is—also affect how your face will react to comedogenic products.
But a higher rating does increase the likelihood that a comedogenic ingredient, like coconut oil (which scores a whopping 4 out of 5 on the scale!) will cause a negative reaction.
Coconut Oil for Your Face: Debunking the Myths
A quick Google search reveals that many people believe coconut oil is basically facial skincare magic. Even dermatologists (skincare experts, no less!) have hopped on the coconut-oil-for-your-face bandwagon.
So do these purported claims have any merit? Here’s what our experts have to say.
Coconut Oil for Face Acne
Myth: Coconut oil can get rid of acne.
Reality: “While coconut oil is soothing and contains lauric acid, it is never a good idea to put any oil on broken skin. It can clog the pores and irritate the skin and make the condition worse,” says Berenice Rothenberg, a certified clinical electrologist (CCE) and licensed cosmetologist practicing in New York.
According to dermatologists, few topical collagen skin supplements live up to the hype, and coconut oil is no exception.
Rothenberg is right; coconut oil does contain high levels of lauric acid, a saturated fatty acid with antimicrobial properties. And lauric acid has been shown to reduce inflammation from acne, hence the claims that the lauric acid in coconut oil will result in clearer skin.
It’s also true that coconut oil is a good antibacterial agent. In addition to being full of vitamin E, it also contains other proteins and caprylic acids that are known for their antifungal properties, says Dean. And since bacteria causes acne, coconut oil should be great for getting rid of bumps…right?
Sadly, Dean says coconut oil “will actually act as a barrier and can cause or worsen acne-prone skin.”
Alternative solutions for face acne: If you’ve turned to coconut oil for face acne, there are better ways to treat your acne. The best thing you can do to prevent acne according to Rothenberg? “Never go to sleep with your makeup on!”
We love a good double cleanse, but for that first oil cleanse, avoid the coconut oil. Instead, Dean recommends grapeseed oil or hemp seed oil to remove makeup at the end of the day because, despite being oils, both have a low comedogenic rating. Rather avoid oils altogether? Another alternative is micellar water, a French skincare product that can be used as an all-in-one cleanser and makeup remover. (It really is a skincare miracle!) You can even make your own micellar water at home if you use herbalist Rebekah Epling’s recipe.
After removing makeup with a makeup remover, you still need to cleanse your skin with a face wash that’s right for your skin type. For acne-prone skin, choose a face wash that contains benzoyl peroxide, an antibacterial agent that helps dry the skin to treat pimples. Or if you’re looking for an all-natural facial cleanser, try a face wash that contains witch hazel or lavender, both of which inhibit bacterial growth, according to Epling.
Coconut Oil as Facial Moisturizer
Myth: Coconut oil is a great facial moisturizer.
Reality: “Coconut oil is primarily made up of saturated fats. This is great for repairing your skin’s natural barrier and trapping in moisture. Because of these properties it soothes rashes, combats dry, flaky skin, and speeds up the healing process,” says Dean.
Sounds great, right? Well, from the neck down, coconut oil is a great moisturizer. But on your face? Not so much, says Dean.
In fact, the very properties that make coconut oil work so well on your ashy elbows and cracked heels are the same properties that make it less than ideal for your face. Though it’ll make quick work of those areas where your skin is thicker, it’s just too heavy for most skin types, leading to clogged pores.
Alternatives to using coconut oil for facial moisturizer: Ideally, facial moisturizers should keep your skin hydrated while remaining light enough that they don’t clog your pores.
Aloe vera gel is a great all-natural moisturizer for all skin types. Like coconut oil, it can help soothe skin irritation and help wounds heal faster, but unlike coconut oil, it won’t clog your pores. Just make sure you look for aloe vera gel products that actually contain aloe vera—many of the aloe products sold by big-box retailers have been found to contain little or no aloe vera!
And, says Rothenberg, don’t forget the power of drinking the daily recommended amount of water to keep your skin hydrated and healthy.
Coconut Oil for Face Wrinkles
Myth: Coconut oil can turn back time and minimize face wrinkles.
Reality: Our bodies’ store of collagen, the protein that helps skin maintain elasticity, naturally depletes as we age. Because of its moisturizing properties, coconut oil is purported to be a great collagen-boosting supplement to improve skin elasticity and reduce wrinkles.
But according to dermatologists, few topical collagen skin supplements live up to the hype, and coconut oil is no exception. “All oils, when applied to the skin, give the appearance of smoothing out lines,” says Rothenberg. “But these oils do not penetrate the basic layer and cannot produce collagen.”
Alternatives to coconut oil for face wrinkles: While coconut oil won’t work to get rid of wrinkles, there are several things that do work to reverse early signs of aging—no expensive creams or serums required.
For one, it’s no secret that UV rays can cause serious damage to your skin, so stay out of the sun as much as possible. I know how hard that can be for some of you sun goddesses, so if you must get your tan on, always wear a sunscreen with at least 30 SPF (even if it’s overcast).
And, if you’re a smoker (even if it’s just the occasional cigarette), kicking the habit is key if you want to maintain a youthful glow. Plus, going smoke-free is just plain good for your overall health.
“Look for coconut oil as an added ingredient in various skincare products so you can reap the benefits and use a product that can be used on most skin types.”
—Paul Dean, MD
In addition to these lifestyle changes, getting more of certain antioxidants in your diet may help reduce the appearance of wrinkles. In particular, vitamin C may help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles on your face.
Coconut Oil on Your Face Overnight
Myth: Coconut oil is a good overnight emollient.
Reality: If you can’t even use coconut oil as a reliable daytime moisturizer because of its comedogenic properties, you sure as heck can’t leave coconut oil on your face overnight for eight hours. (Okay, who am I kidding? I get a full 10.)
Using coconut oil overnight is a great way to get clogged pores and wake up to a breakout. Good morning, sunshine, indeed.
Alternatives to coconut oil on your face overnight: Not all oils are bad for your face. Grapeseed oil and hemp seed oil aren’t just great makeup removers; they’re also wonderful as overnight emollients to soften skin as you sleep. “Jojoba oil has a low comedogenic rating as well,” says Epling, “It’s ideal as a carrier for other essential essences, like lavender or tea tree oil, to use overnight.”
Coconut oil can help other skin conditions.
I know I’ve been giving coconut oil a bad rap so far, but coconut oil actually is great for a variety of skin conditions (that aren’t on your face).
In particular, coconut oil was shown to alleviate physical symptoms of atopic dermatitis—a skin condition that causes an itchy red rash—in pediatric patients. Another study found that in addition to reducing the appearance of atopic dermatitis, coconut oil was effective at combating colonization of Staphylococcus aureus, which produces a certain toxin that causes the immune system to react by breaking out in dry, scaly patches.
Another study found that coconut oil was as effective as mineral oil in treating xerosis, a condition similar to atopic dermatitis that also causes dry, scaly skin.
Finally, a 2010 study of animal subjects also should that wounds treated with virgin coconut oil healed much faster than those that were not treated with coconut oil. So, if you have a scrape or cut and don’t have Neosporin handy, a dab of coconut oil (and a cute bandage) may help your wound heal faster.
The Bottom Line on Coconut Oil
So here’s the deal: For a very, very small number of people, coconut oil may help skin conditions. As Dean puts it, “Using coconut oil directly on your skin can be extremely beneficial, but not good for everyone.”
For instance, he says that for people with severely dry skin, coconut oil may help restore moisture content.
But for most of us, using coconut oil on our faces will likely result in more breakouts and clogged pores.
All is not lost, however. If you absolutely must have coconut oil as part of your facial skincare routine, Dean says to “look for coconut oil as an added ingredient in various skincare products so you can reap the benefits and use a product that can be used on most skin types.”
The bottom line on coconut oil? Skip using coconut oil on your face, and stick to using coconut oil as a delicious addition to stovetop popcorn instead.