Refined vs. Unrefined Coconut Oil: Similarities, Differences & When To Use Each
Coconut oil gets a lot of attention. Most of the conversation centers around whether it's healthy or not, but there's also the question of refined versus unrefined coconut oil. What's the difference between the two types, and is one better than the other? We dug into the research and spoke with experts to get you the answers.
What is unrefined coconut oil?
Unrefined coconut oil, also called virgin coconut oil, is the purest version of coconut oil you can get.
"Unrefined coconut oil doesn't go through extra processing steps like refined does. It's extracted from coconut meat using a dry or wet method1," says clinical and culinary dietitian Huma Chaudry, R.D.
In the dry method, Chaudry adds, fresh coconut is heated, then a machine presses the coconut oil from the flesh. In the wet method, coconut oil is pressed out with the milk and then the two are separated.
You may also see unrefined coconut oil labeled as cold-pressed. This means the coconut oil was extracted from coconut milk without any heat. To do so, the outer husk of a matured coconut, which can yield more oil2 than young coconuts, is removed and then pressed to slowly pull out the oil.
Aside from having a better nutritional profile, this method helps reduce production costs and takes less energy, which makes it more environmentally friendly. The downside for producers is that cold-pressing creates lower yield than other methods of extraction. That's why this type of oil is often more expensive than refined or expeller-pressed varieties.
"Because it hasn't gone through a lot of processing, you're still getting a strong coconut flavor and smell, so that means when you're cooking with it or using it in recipes, you're going to taste it," says integrative dietitian Jessica Cording, R.D.
Unrefined coconut oil is rich in vitamin E, vitamin K, and a specific type of saturated fat called medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. More specifically, it's loaded with an MCT called lauric acid, which makes up about 48 to 53% of its fatty acid content1.
Lauric acid is a good, quick energy source that our body can use and is easier to digest, according to Chaudry. Lauric acid is also antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory3. In addition, coconut oil provides a natural source of caprylic acid4, which also provides antimicrobial properties5.
There is debate on whether or not coconut oil can be good for heart health. In one study6, researchers compared the effect of butter, olive oil, and coconut oil on cholesterol levels. They found that, despite its higher saturated fat content, coconut oil didn't raise LDL cholesterol levels. It also increased HDL, or "good cholesterol" levels, even more so than olive oil.
Conclusive claims cannot be based on one study, and due to the high saturated fat content of coconut oil, it's a good idea to limit intake to 1-2 tablespoons per day.
If you can find it, Cording recommends opting for organic, extra-virgin unrefined coconut oil. While it used to be a bit difficult to track down, there are lots of brands available at most major retailers now. (See a few options below.)
She also suggests looking for glass containers, which can serve double duty. "Glass jars are more sustainable because they limit plastic consumption and are reusable. They make great containers for overnight oats and smoothies when you're on the go," she says.
How to store:
When storing unrefined coconut oil, you want to make sure to keep it in a cool, dark, dry place (not next to the stove!) so it stays fresh. "Light can impact oil quality and cause oils to go rancid more quickly," says Cording.
Keep in mind that coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so depending on how you're using it, you may have to warm it up slightly to turn it into a liquid.
Shop unrefined coconut oil:
What is refined coconut oil?
Refined coconut oil goes through more processing than its unrefined counterpart. "It's similar to dry extraction, but it goes through some additional processing. There are different degumming agents used to remove some of the thickness of unrefined coconut oil. When it's done, it tends to have no odor or coconut flavor," says Cording.
According to a 2021 report in Bioprocess and Biosystems Engineering2, refining removes some of the antioxidants and polyphenols that are naturally found in the oil. Refined coconut oil is also often exposed to heat somewhere along the refining process, which can further degrade its nutrients and negatively affect its antioxidant properties.
While the antioxidant capacity can be lower, refined coconut oil still has similar health benefits to unrefined versions—as long as you're choosing a high-quality one. While some refined oils are made with harsh chemicals like petroleum-derived hexane, others are steam-refined and still offer beneficial vitamins and fatty acids without unwanted additives.
When buying refined coconut oil, the same tips apply (looking for a glass container, for instance), but Chaudry says it is especially important to choose an organic version here.
During a conventional refining process, some chemicals like hexane may be used. If you go organic, you naturally reduce your exposure to chemicals like this, which can be toxic in high amounts7.
How to store:
Even though it is more processed, refined oil actually has a shorter shelf life than unrefined oil. While the shelf life can vary based on how refined it is, it typically lasts up to 24 months, according to Chaudry, who recommends storing it in the refrigerator to increase shelf life.
Shop refined coconut oil:
What's the difference?
So, what's the difference between unrefined and refined coconut oil? Here's a recap of the major differentiators:
- Nutrient profile: Unrefined coconut oil has higher levels of antioxidants and polyphenols.
- Smoke point: Unrefined coconut oil has a lower smoke point than refined: about 350 compared to 450.
- Price: Unrefined coconut oil is often more expensive than refined versions since the process has a lower yield (and thus a higher production cost).
- Taste: Refining removes much of the coconut taste from the oil since deodorizers and bleach are involved. Because of this, refined coconut oil has a neutral taste, while unrefined has a more tropical flavor.
- Shelf life: Despite its higher level of processing, refined coconut oil has a shorter shelf life than unrefined. A jar of refined oil typically lasts 18 to 24 months, while you can store unrefined for three to five years.
Refined vs. Unrefined: Best uses
Is there a time you should reach for one type of oil over the other? Here's what our experts have to say:
Cooking: Either, but refined for high-heat cooking
Either type can be used for cooking. However, unrefined oil will deliver more health benefits, while refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point—there's about a 100-degree difference. If you're doing any high-heat cooking, like sautéing or stir-frying, you might want to use refined over unrefined (or use avocado oil, which has a higher smoke point than both), says Cording.
Keep in mind that coconuts are technically a tree nut allergen, so if you're cooking for someone else, make sure you get the all-clear from them.
Cording also recommends refined coconut oil if you're using it for baking since it has a neutral flavor that lends itself better to a variety of recipes (key lime pie or pumpkin spice cookies, anyone?). However, if what you're baking has a flavor that complements coconut oil (like chocolate or citrus), you can get away with using unrefined coconut oil.
Adding coconut oil to coffee is one of the most popular (and delicious!) uses. Take advantage of the antioxidant benefits of unrefined coconut oil by blending it up with your favorite cold brew, or stir the unrefined version into hot coffee for a more subtle coconut taste.
If you're not a coffee drinker, you can also add coconut oil to your chai tea or golden milk.
Keto diet: Either
When it comes to the keto diet, it doesn't really matter which type of coconut oil you're eating—the MCTs in either one are a great quick energy source, according to Chaudry. "You have to eat a lot of fat to maintain ketosis, and when you take carbs away, you need long-lasting energy." She says to make sure to monitor your servings, switch up your oils, and combine them with other food groups like fiber-rich veggies. Here are some other keto diet mainstays.
Mediterranean diet: Either
Healthy fats are a key element of the Mediterranean diet. Again, refined vs. unrefined doesn't matter as much as switching up your fat sources. Make sure you're getting plenty of monounsaturated fats, too.
Ready to eat a more Mediterranean-inspired diet? Here's a 7-day meal plan.
When it comes to skin health, any coconut oil can be super creamy and hydrating, but it may be better to go with an unrefined version. "Coconut oil is rich in vitamin E, which has been linked to protecting the skin barrier from premature aging and sun damage," says Chaudry. "Using heat to process [a refined oil] can affect some of its nutrients (like vitamin E). On the other hand, if you're using cold-pressed oils, a lot of the nutrients are retained and make their way into your skin8."
It also has an emollient effect that may be helpful to those with skin conditions, like atopic dermatitis9.
As for whether it clogs pores: That depends on the individual, according to Cording. "Our gut microbiomes dictate a lot of what happens with our skin health. One person might react one way, while another reacts completely differently," she says.
Another tip to keep in mind. "If you're going to be wearing anything where oil stains are a possibility, wait until [the oil] seeps in" before getting dressed, says Cording.
Here's your primer on how to start incorporating coconut oil into your skin care routine.
Cording recommends using unrefined coconut oil for your hair care, too, since the higher nutrient content can help nourish your strands. But she does mention that because it's solid at room temperature, it can impact your hair texture. Try a little at a time to see how it feels, and then go from there.
Here are six ways to use coconut oil for more luscious hair.
Oral health: Either
Some studies10 show that oil pulling with coconut oil can have a beneficial effect on dental health and hygiene when combined with other preventive measures like regular brushing and flossing. However, more research is needed to make conclusive statements here. "Oil pulling is believed to have a saponification benefit (cleaning, reducing plaque). When you're swishing with coconut oil, it can trap bacteria and plaque," says Chaudry.
Both unrefined and refined coconut oils have a high concentration of lauric acid, which has antibacterial properties that can be good for your teeth.
Sexual health: Unrefined
There hasn't been an abundance of research on coconut oil and sexual health, but there are a handful of studies that show that coconut oil can be effectively used in place of commercial vaginal lubricants. One thing to note is that coconut oil doesn't directly kill off 11E. coli11 (one of the main contributors to urinary tract infections) as much as commercial lubricants, but it maintains Lactobacillus crispatus better. This preservation contributes to a balanced vaginal ecosystem that may reduce the risk of UTIs.
Functional medicine gynecologist Wendie Trubow, M.D., recommends using unrefined coconut oil in the bedroom, previously telling mbg that "the less messed with, the better."
If it's your first time using unrefined coconut oil as a lubricant, only use a little bit to make sure you're not allergic.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long can you keep refined coconut oil?
Refined coconut oil is more susceptible to oxidation than unrefined, or virgin, coconut oil. You can keep it for about 18 to 24 months, as long as it's stored properly: tightly closed in a cool, dark place (or in the refrigerator) away from heat and light.
When should I use refined coconut oil?
Because of its higher smoke point and neutral flavor, refined coconut oil can be a good option for higher-heat cooking, baking, and when you're cooking a really savory dish and you just don't want it to have that coconut flavor. That being said, Cording recommends trying avocado oil (which has a higher level of monounsaturated fat and undergoes less processing) sometimes too.
Can I use unrefined coconut oil for cooking?
Yes, you can use unrefined coconut oil for cooking. It does have a lower smoke point though, so it's best for lower-heat methods like baking or roasting. It also has a stronger coconut flavor, so you may want to reserve it for dishes that lend well to the sweeter taste profile.
Unrefined and refined coconut oils both have their place, but unrefined has an edge when it comes to nutritional profile—it's higher in antioxidants and polyphenols, compounds that give the oil many of its health benefits. It's also free of additives that may be used during the refining process.
While refined coconut oil is OK in moderation, experts typically recommend sticking with unrefined versions whenever possible or using a more neutral option like avocado oil when you don't want that coconutty flavor.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.