Coconut oil has been touted as a natural beauty cure-all for ages. Specifically when it comes to beauty, many enthusiasts swear by coconut oil as their go-to: It's a hair treatment, DIY base, face cleanser, face moisturizer, oil pulling tonic, and body moisturizer all in one.
So there are many reasons to love coconut oils' benefits for both skin and hair, that's for sure. But, like all good things, it's not good across the board—or for everything. In the beauty space, we tend to think that if something works, it must do so universally and start handing out advice suggesting as such. But, as hair and skin are very complex and individual things, what works for you may not work for me. That's OK!
Case in point: coconut oil and curious cases of clogged pores. One issue some complain about when using the oil is that you may start seeing more blackheads and pimples with regular use—which leads us to the question: Uh, oh, is coconut oil clogging my pores?
We spoke to a few experts and dove into the research to find out.
Here's the issue: it's high on the comedogenic scale.
Comedogenic refers to the pore-clogging nature of a substance—and typically in skin care you look for noncomedogenic ingredients, as they are less likely to cause breakouts or skin issues. Board certified dermatologist Cybele Fishman, M.D. notes that this is an anecdotal phenomenon she sees in her practice: "While the improved barrier function and the antibacterial properties of virgin coconut oil (VCO) would seem to make it a great choice for cleansing or a moisturizer for patients with acne, in my day-to-day seeing lots of acne patients experience, it does cause breakouts in some, not all patients," she said. She postulates that it might be lauric acid.
On its own, lauric acid has been shown to help acne, as it’s anti-microbial and can tend to acne-causing bacteria1. But when it accumulates in the top layer of skin without penetrating—which is problematic for those with already oily or acne-prone skin. Once sitting atop the pore, bacteria, dirt, and dead skin cells can accumulate below festering until they trigger an inflammatory response. This is when you'll see breakouts.
Another issue: Oils don't hydrate.
Oils are occlusive by nature, meaning they wrap around the skin creating a seal. This seal traps in water (a good thing!) and helps protect the skin from external aggressors (also a good thing!), however you need water in the first place to trap it in. And depending on usage, you may not be actually trapping in water under the oil, causing your skin to feel dry underneath—which may lead to increased sebum production as a reaction.
See, according to skin care expert Sarah Villafranco, M.D., oils don't actually hydrate the skin. "Anything that hydrates must have a water component—that’s the 'hydr' part—which means that lotions (70 percent water) hydrate the skin, but oils don’t," she explained. So in order to properly gauge whether coconut oil is making you break out, you need to ensure you're using it effectively. We recommend using it as an occlusive over damp skin, or even atop humectant serum or lotion (like a hyaluronic acid or glycerin based one). Here’s the layer: right after washing your face or right after a shower when your skin is still damp, apply your hydrating serum and pat this at top.
Who should & shouldn't use it: Pros & cons
So how do you know if coconut oil is right for you? Well "the only way to know if virgin coconut oil works for your skin is to experiment," says esthetician Tami Blake, founder of Free + True. That being said, if you're looking for guidance, here's out pro and con checklist.
- Pro: Good for eczema & weakened skin barriers. Because it's antimicrobial, coconut oil protects the skin from Staph2 bacteria, which has been linked to eczema, both Villafranco and Fishman agreed. It also helps with transepidermal water loss (TEWL)3 in patients, as eczema (sometimes called atopic dermatitis) is a chronic condition characterized primarily by the skin's inability to properly trap and keep in moisture4.
- Con: Can cause breakouts. Listen, for the reasons above, there's a decent chance that if your pores clog easily, using coconut oil may be a risky move for you—as any oil high on the comedogenic scale may contribute to breakouts.
- Pro: Anyone can use it as a makeup remover. When used as a makeup remover, the oil becomes a wash-off product, and thus a safer bet for most—even if you have acneic skin, as the oil isn't staying on for long. Be sure to always double-cleanse in this case, by following up with a water-based face wash.
- Con: It's thick and may be solid at room temperature. From a texture standpoint, many who prefer lighter, airier products may stay away from the oil from a sensorial standpoint. This is simply a personal choice.
- Pro: It makes a solid body moisturizer. Your face has a higher concentration of pores and sebaceous glands, therefore is more prone to breakouts. So even if you can't tolerate it on your face, you may be able to use it on other parts of your body such as your hands, arms, legs, feet, stomach—be more careful with the trunk, shoulders, and chest as they tend to be areas associated with body acne.
If you do break out, try fractionated coconut oil or jojoba oil.
Fractionated coconut oil (when sourced alternatively) has been minimally processed—it's steamed, and the longer-chain fatty acids, including lauric acid, which is irritating to some skin, are removed, leaving the medium-chain fats behind. This is how it stays liquid at room temperature. "Compared to raw coconut oil, which can feel oddly greasy and dry on the skin, fractionated coconut oil soaks in quickly and does not leave an oily feeling on the surface of the skin," said Villafranco. Give it two weeks, which is enough time for your skin to adjust to something new.
If it fails, jojoba oil. Jojoba oil is generally considered to be one of the best oil options for those with acne or easily clogged pores. Experts think so as it is the oil that structurally most closely resembles sebum, the oily substance the sebaceous glands secrete as a natural way to keep the skin and hair moisturized. See, it can reduce skin oiliness by modulating your skin's natural sebum production. Not to mention the oil is rich in beauty-boosting ingredients like vitamin E, vitamin B complex, copper, and zinc—and has been shown to have impressive anti-inflammatory effects.
Other options include grapeseed oil and pumpkin seed oil, which are both very well tolerated onthe skin. Pumpkin seed oil rich in unsaturated fatty acids, has been shown to be useful in acne to reduce redness and inflammation5.
Coconut oil, thanks to its occlusive nature, may cause breakouts for those who a predisposition to the condition. If it works for you, no worries and continue your daily routine. But if you see clogged pores coming up, reconsider the product.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.