Last Updated on August 7th, 2019
Are you considering using coconut oil for acne? If you are, that’s not surprising. Coconut oil has been a popular health food fad for several years now, and that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. Some sources claim it can help you lose weight, while others suggest that it can soothe an upset stomach, but what we really want to know is whether or not you should be using coconut oil for acne. The short version is this: Maybe. Not super helpful, we know, but using coconut oil for acne really depends on your skin type. This article will explain what all the buzz around coconut oil is about, investigate whether or not it has any real health benefits, and recommend a few do-it-yourself solutions that use coconut oil for acne treatment.
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It can be easy to dismiss health fads as utter nonsense—they pop up, gain popularity, are disproven by exasperated scientists, and then another one pops up to take its place. Like health fad Wack-a-Mole. There is usually a small kernel of truth in these trends, but all the hype surrounding them can get out of hand and lead to all kinds of incorrect or premature conclusions.
Coconut oil is no different; it won’t cure everything, and even the things it could help with will likely improve slowly if at all, but it has a pretty solid kernel of truth: Lauric acid. This is going to take brief detour into some more intense nutritional science, so if you’re uninterested in that, you might want to skip ahead to the next section.
You may have heard the general information that saturated fats are bad and unsaturated fats are good, but it may not be that simple. Saturated fats get their name because of their chemical makeup. Each compound is made up of single bonds, so it is “saturated” with hydrogen. Unsaturated fats involve at least one double bond.
Although scientists used to believe that the biggest differences between fats was whether they were saturated or unsaturated, they are now discovering that the length of a fatty acid chain could be a better indicator for how healthy it is. Every fatty acid compound forms a chain that is short, medium, or long. Most of the fatty acids we consume are long-chain, and these are the unhealthy ones. They require more energy to digest, meaning you gain less energy or nutrients from them. Because long-chain fatty acids are common in both saturated and unsaturated fats, both may be unhealthy. The factor to look for in healthy fats is shorter fatty acid chains.
This is why coconut oil really is a healthy alternative1 to many other oils: it contains medium-chain triglycerides, which make it easy to digest and provide your body with all of its natural nutrients, instead of a small fraction.
Coconut oil is getting a lot of attention because it is a prime example of these newfound rules for fats. It is a saturated oil, which means it used to be considered unhealthy, but it is made mostly from medium-chain triglycerides, or fatty acids, meaning now it may be good for you. Unlike some of the other fats in a similar position, in limbo between healthy and unhealthy as science tries to determine where it belongs, coconut oil has one factor that makes it undeniably good for you in at least a few ways: lauric acid.
Lauric acid is the fatty acid primarily responsible for all the hype around coconut oil, and it is especially important for using coconut oil for acne. It is a type of medium-chain triglyceride, which means it provides the body with fat that really is healthy for you. But it also has other properties that help make coconut oil so unique. It is antimicrobial, meaning it can fight off bacteria, anti-inflammatory, and it promotes antioxidants, substances which prevent cell damage.
It’s hard to find a cure for something if you don’t know where it’s coming from, so before we can determine if all these amazing qualities of coconut oil will have any impact on acne, it’s important to know what causes acne2. Stress, skin type, age, and a million other factors may lead to acne, but the three primary causes are inflammation, bacteria, and oil production.
Scientists used to believe that acne was caused primarily by bacteria and only worsened by inflammation and natural skin oils (otherwise known as sebum), but in recent years they have discovered that inflammation may be the key issue. It is true that acne is associated with a particular kind of bacteria called p. acnes, but this bacteria lives on our skin all the time in reasonable numbers, and can even benefit our skin normally. They consume sebum, which can reduce oil buildup and lead to healthier skin. P. acnes bacteria only become a problem when they get trapped beneath the skin, which happens when the skin is inflamed.
Sebum is another main cause of acne because it can easily clog pores. This leads to blackheads, which are clogged pores that are open, and when the skin is inflamed, sebum buildup can also lead to whiteheads or papules. Papules look like pimples but without a defined “head,” and they appear when bacteria and sebum are trapped beneath the skin.
When treating acne, many dermatologists now aim to reduce inflammation first and foremost. Killing bacteria is only necessary when they get trapped beneath the skin, and excess sebum is less likely to clog pores if the skin is not inflamed. However, treating inflammation alone isn’t enough; the best acne treatments address inflammation, bacteria, and excess sebum.
So what does all of this mean? Is the hype around coconut oil for acne just that—hype? Or is coconut oil a legitimate acne solution?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that there have been very few studies done on the impact of using coconut oil for acne. Unfortunately there’s no solid evidence confirming or denying its usefulness in acne treatment. That being said, there are many properties of coconut oil that align with the causes of acne, making it a logical possibility for treatment.
As we mentioned earlier, lauric acid is the key player in coconut oil. It fights bacteria, but it can be especially effective against p. acnes. According to this study3 published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, lauric acid is actually most effective against p. acnes when compared to other bacteria.
Whether it is because of the lauric acid or just a unique combination of ingredients in coconut oil, it has also proven to be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent4. According to this study published in Pharmaceutical Biology, coconut oil can be moderately successful when treating acute inflammation, like a particularly red breakout, but it is also effective when it comes to keeping general inflammation down. Because inflammation is often the first step in acne formation, this could make coconut oil for acne very effective.
Despite limited research studying the direct effect of coconut oil on acne, when the individual properties are taken all together, it’s clear that coconut oil for acne could be a great treatment solution.
There are two main ways you can use coconut oil for acne treatment: It can be applied directly to the skin, or it can be consumed in food or a pill. Both can be effective, but both also have their drawbacks. Before trying either, you should know what to expect and what to avoid.
Applying coconut oil or coconut oil-based products directly to your skin is the most effective way to kill p. acnes bacteria. P. acnes live on your skin, not in your gut, so consuming coconut oil will not reduce their presence on your skin. There are many acne products that kill p. acnes, but they are often harsh and drying, which can irritate skin and cause more acne. Coconut oil is different; it is antimicrobial and moisturizing. Because it is an oil, it can protect and repair the skin5, which keeps it healthy and can also be useful for preventing and fading acne scars.
However, these very strengths are what make topical coconut oil a potential problem. Oils can be moisturizing and protective, but they can also clog pores, especially if you have already oily skin. You should not use coconut oil directly on your skin if you have oily skin, and if you have normal or combination skin, it might be best to try other products and only use coconut oil as a last resort.
Sensitive and dry skin types are the only ones that consistently benefit from coconut oil in very small amounts that are less likely to clog pores. Still, any amount could cause a problem, so if you are using coconut oil for acne by applying it directly to your skin and you notice an increase in acne or clogged pores, you may want to try a different product.
If you have oily skin or want to glean other potential health benefits6 from coconut oil like weight loss or lowered cholesterol (the jury is still out on these as well), there are other options. Instead of applying coconut oil directly to your skin, you can use coconut oil in cooking or take it in pill form. Even though ingesting coconut oil means it never comes in contact with your actual acne, there is a possibility it can still help.
Coconut oil has anti-inflammatory properties that can work from the inside out. It doesn’t need to be applied directly to the inflamed area because it can be absorbed through the gut and reduce overall inflammation throughout the body. Because inflammation is a main cause of acne, simply finding ways to eat coconut oil can help reduce acne.
Many people incorporate coconut oil into their diet by using it instead of more traditional vegetable oils. Other creative solutions include using coconut oil as a coffee creamer, including coconut oil in smoothies, or looking for coconut-specific recipes like these coconut lime snowball cookies.
If you don’t like the taste or texture of coconut oil, it is also available as a pill. This is a convenient option for many people because you don’t have to worry about keeping it at the right temperature, like you do with regular coconut oil, and you don’t have to find ways to incorporate it into your diet.
However, coconut oil pills are almost always more expensive, and it can be very difficult to judge which dosage is best, since there’s no official recommended dosage. Also, because vitamins and supplements are not approved by the FDA before being sold on the market, there are a lot of scams out there.
If you have dry skin or if you just want to experiment with coconut oil, you don’t have to just dab it on your face. You can make it fun with all kinds of ingredients found in your pantry or at your local health food store. These face mask recipes combine coconut oil with other acne-fighting ingredients, but they should all be washed off after the specified time limit because the coconut oil is likely to clog your pores if left on too long.
Soothing Honey, Green Tea, and Coconut Oil Mask
If you have dry or sensitive skin, this mask can reduce redness and calm your skin, making it positively glow.
1 teaspoon of coconut oil
2 tablespoons of honey
1 tablespoon of ground green tea leaves
To get the best consistency, we recommend combining the coconut oil and honey first. Then, once they are evenly mixed, add the ground green tea leaves. It’s fine if you just cut open a tea bag, but obviously you are free to purchase loose green tea as well. Stir in the green tea until there are no pockets with extra or areas totally devoid of green tea.
Next is the fun/messy part: Applying the mask. You can use your fingers, but if that feels a bit too messy for your taste, a cotton ball or Q-tip should work nicely as well. Allow the mask to set on your skin for no more than 10 minutes. At that point, rinse the mask with cool or lukewarm water until it is entirely removed. Your face should not feel oily—if it does, continue rinsing. You don’t want to leave excess oil on your face because it could clog pores. Once the mask is fully removed, all there’s left to do is pat your face dry with a soft towel.
Drying Yogurt and Coconut Oil Mask
We are more skeptical of this recipe, but if you have combination skin, it could be the perfect concoction. Yogurt is a probiotic, meaning it contains some healthy bacteria, and these healthy bacteria produce lactic acid when combined with the milk in yogurt. When applied to the skin, lactic acid has been known to dry out oil and tighten pores. Coconut oil, on the other hand is very moisturizing but very oily. Supposedly, combining these two ingredients can prevent the yogurt from drying too much and prevent the coconut oil from clogging pores. If you do not see positive results from this mask, we recommend trying a new recipe.
2 teaspoons of coconut oil
1 tablespoon of plain yogurt
For this recipe, you’ll want to melt the coconut oil. The simple way to do this is to scoop out the desired amount (in this case, 2 teaspoons) into a bowl and microwave it for 5 seconds. But this can also be done over the stove. Simply scoop 2 teaspoons into a stovetop pan, turn the heat on low, and stir gently until the oil has turned to liquid.
Next you’ll want to add the yogurt. Mix together until both ingredients are blended evenly, then it’s time to get ready to apply it to your face. This recipe will probably be a bit runnier than the last, so we have a few precautionary recommendations. First, if you have long hair you will want to pull it back. It might also be helpful to lie down flat on your back with a towel underneath your head. It will be somewhat difficult to apply the mask in this position, but this way it is less likely to drip. Finally, using a cotton ball to apply the mixture is almost definitely the neatest option, but if you don’t mind a little mess, your fingers are still fine.
After applying the mask to your skin, let it set for no longer than 15 minutes. Then rinse your face with cool or lukewarm water until it is no longer oily, and pat dry with a soft towel. Make sure you throw away any leftover mixture, as it will not stay good, even in the refrigerator.
If your skin tone is uneven or you have significant dark spots from acne scarring, this is the perfect facemask for you. Turmeric has been well known7 as a skincare product for centuries, and unlike many products that can help get rid of dark spots caused by acne, it is safe for dark skin.
1 tablespoon of coconut oil
1/3 teaspoon of turmeric
This is another recipe that requires you to melt the coconut oil. This can be done in the microwave or on the stove top—see the previous recipe for full instructions. Once the coconut oil is melted, add the 1/3 teaspoon of turmeric and mix well. This is likely to be another runny mask, so you may way to apply while lying down and use a cotton ball. Once the mask is on your face, allow it to set for no more than 15 minutes. After that, simply rinse with cool or lukewarm water and pat dry.
You can find these recipes and more at SiO Beauty, but one last note: because coconut oil can moisturize skin, it is sometimes paired with an exfoliating agent, like a sugar scrub or oatmeal. These are meant to balance each other out, but instead they are almost guaranteed to clog pores. The exfoliant pushes the coconut oil into pores, and it irritates the skin, causing it to become inflamed and trap the coconut oil in the pores. This will almost certainly lead to acne.
Even though there’s no solid evidence, logic suggests that coconut oil could be a good solution for acne in dry skin—in addition to a regular acne treatment routine. Coconut oil alone will not clear your acne, and for some people it may even make things worse. The most important way to take care of acne-prone skin is to consistently use a gentle acne treatment system, like Exposed Skincare. We recommend this brand because unlike coconut oil, it really works for every skin type. This is because it combines natural ingredients like green tea, tea tree oil, and aloe vera with scientific ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur. Together, these ingredients make a formula that’s gentle enough for the most sensitive skin, and strong enough to effectively treat oily skin as well.
While coconut oil is a good occasional acne treatment, Exposed Skincare can help reduce acne every day.
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