We'd call coconut oil trendy—which, due to the plethora of Instagram hacks and DIY recipes, it certainly qualifies—but, really it's been used for ages for many uses, ranging from ancient beauty practices to cooking and for good reason: There's plenty of research to back up the good-for-everything claims.
What are the uses?
1. Hair health
For those in the natural beauty space, coconut oil is a go-to for many hair treatments, from masks to split end conditioners. The reason for this is that, unlike many other household oils, coconut oil has been shown to penetrate the strand, while many other hair products simply coat the strand. This means it can improve hair health1 rather than just locking in the moisture. Also: The high antioxidant content can also help fight against oxidative stress (this causes hair to age, one study shows2).
2. Teeth whitening
While there isn't as much research about coconut oil helping remove stains and discoloration, some holistic dentists claim that at least anecdotally, regularly using coconut oil in oral care (be it in products or with oil pulling) can help your smile appear whiter. "I can respond anecdotally about coconut oil's benefits: I absolutely believe it has whitening properties, can decrease sensitivity, and there's even the idea that it can deter cavities from getting worse," holistic dentist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine Ester Rubin, told us. "And what's so fascinating about the whitening claims is that from what I can tell, it's not removing extrinsic stains on enamel—which can be removed with brushing—but it's helping the dentin, which is the layer under the enamel that's more difficult to treat."
3. Oil pulling
While this ancient ayurvedic tradition historically recommends sesame seed oil, coconut oil has become the go-to for many in modern times. A small study suggests3 that regular oil pulling can even reduce plaque buildup. Another small study4 showed that daily oil pulling for 2-3 minutes with coconut oil was as effective as chlorhexadine at reducing the bacteria that cause cavities.
4. Makeup remover
If you need to lift off stubborn mascara or long-wear foundation, oil is known to be a great facial cleanser. And while most people recommend using olive or castor oil for your actual oil-based face wash, coconut oil is a great prewash step. Just take a dab and gently swish it around where you're wearing makeup, and watch it just melt off.
5. Body moisturizer
This is a very popular body moisturizer5 as it tends to be on the lighter end of oils. However, it can be comedogenic, so some skin care experts recommend avoiding it on the face if you are acne-prone; most people can tolerate it on the body, though. Also: Due to its high lauric acid content, which sits on the skin and cannot deeply nourish, it can be drying over time if used too frequently.
6. Help eczema or psoriasis
Eczema and psoriasis are skin conditions in which the skin's barrier function is compromised. In one study6, applying coconut oil topically was shown to help reduce water loss and improve symptoms of eczema more than mineral oil. And another showed7 that patients with xerosis, or dry skin, reported less severe patches of scales and dry skin. However, these were only small, individual studies—and if you have either of these conditions, please consult a dermatologist for professional treatment.
7. Epsom salt bath
Epsom salt baths have many purported benefits on their own, and one way to make yours more soothing to dry or inflamed skin is to add a small amount of coconut oil for extra skin softening.
8. Lip balm or gloss
Coconut oil tends to be the base of many popular natural lip balms or glosses, as it's not too thick, sinks into chapped lips, and leaves a demi-matte sheen. Plus, if you're into DIY beauty, you can effortlessly make your own.
9. Use as an essential oil carrier
Many essential oils cannot be applied to the skin directly, as they can be highly irritating when they are so concentrated. So when you're adding essential oils to your aromatherapy or beauty routine, it is advised to add a "carrier oil," or neutral-smelling base that dilutes the essential oils you are using.
10. Bug repellent
In the same vein, you can mix certain essential oils or active ingredients into coconut oil to make your own DEET-free bug repellent. As noted here, lavender and lemon eucalyptus are two popular options that smell great and ward off bugs.
11. Soothe bug bites or minor cuts
If you do get bug bites, or minor cuts, you can use coconut oil to soothe the irritation. One animal study showed8 that when treated with virgin coconut oil within 24 hours of the initial injury, and then continuing for 10 days after the fact, wounds healed significantly faster, which is likely due to the antioxidant and antibacterial properties of coconut oil.
Many people swear by coconut oil as a base for natural deodorant, since it's antibacterial (bacteria, not sweat, are what cause odor). Plus, when you mix in essential oils, it makes for a delightful-smelling alternative sans scary chemicals.
13. Body scrub base
Just like deodorant and lip balms, many natural body scrubs use coconut oil as a base—since it's a solid at room temperature and plays nicely with other ingredients but then melts when heated into skin, so it's softening the skin while exfoliating. For an uplifting and brightening option, try this at-home recipe.
14. Sautéing or cooking foods
One of the reasons coconut oil is so popular in the kitchen is because of the high smoke point, especially when compared to other standard cooking oils. Coconut oil won't start burning (or, when you start to see smoke) until upwards of 450°F. For comparison, olive oil burns at around 320°F.
15. Make the ideal anti-inflammatory oil
Turmeric is best absorbed in the body when paired with a fat, and here you'll find a recipe infusing the powerful anti-inflammatory ingredient into coconut oil, which you can then use for cooking, adding to smoothies, or for dipping other foods.
16. Fights candida
Candida is fungus in the body, the overgrowth of which includes symptoms such as yeast infections, nail and skin infections and bloat. Coconut oil is also known to have antimicrobial and antifungal properties; in fact, some studies9 have shown that treating candida10 with coconut oil can be just as effective as more traditional antifungal medications. If you have a serious fungal infection, you should be seen by your healthcare provider.
17. Possible moderation of appetite
A very small study found11 that when men ingest medium-chain triacylglycerols (MCT), one of the the fats found in coconut oil, they end up eating less overall, as the oil can help suppress appetite. Another small study of overweight men showed12 that it does this by increasing two key hormones—peptide YY and leptin—which help the body feel full.
Since these studies were conducted using MCT oil, you might expect similar results from using a fractionated coconut or MCT oil that's liquid at room temperature, rather than virgin coconut oil.
18. Boost energy
At the same time, MCT has also been shown to increase energy in studies13: This is because they don't take as much to be broken down in the body and can be used then as an immediate source14 of energy when ingested. And as Jessica Cording, another registered dietitian, has told us, "MCTs have been shown to go straight to the liver from the GI tract, where they're made into ketones, which can be used as an energy source." Again, this applies to liquid MCT oil rather than virgin coconut oil.
19. Improve brain health
Another MCT bonus: Studies have shown that it improves brain function. One pilot study showed15 that taking coconut oil along with a Mediterranean diet may help improve cognitive function in those with Alzheimer's. Anecdotally, too, many people who regularly take MCT say they are more focused for longer and are able to avoid brain fog midday.
20. Rev up metabolism
21. Natural lube
As gynecologist Anna Cabeca, M.D., told us, "nonhormonal vaginal lubricants and moisturizers help reduce dryness. Lubricants are applied just before sex; moisturizers are applied more regularly, for longer-term relief. Both are helpful, but they do not 'cure' vaginal dryness and other symptoms of atrophy." One of her all-natural recommendations? Coconut oil—find the recipe here.
22. Helps with "good" cholesterol
The common red flag people raise with coconut oil is that it's 90% saturated fat, which we've been told time and again to avoid because it raises "bad" LDL cholesterol. Interestingly, however, coconut oil is actually shown18 to give "good" HDL cholesterol a boost. This study even found19 that coconut oil's effect on cholesterol was desirable relative to butter, raising good cholesterol (HDL) more than butter, and raising bad cholesterol (LDL) less than butter. Despite its saturated fat content, coconut oil behaves more like olive oil, which is higher in monounsaturated fat.
23. Control blood sugar throughout the day
As holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., tells us blood sugar spikes and crashes can trigger anxious feelings in some: “For some people, blood sugar dips cause anxiety. And most of the time these folks aren't even aware of this connection. If this is you, you can make yourself significantly less anxious by maintaining stable blood sugar.” Her solution? “I like using coconut oil for blood sugar stabilization, which, in turn, makes it a great tool for preventing anxiety and panic disorder. So I have people take a spoonful at various intervals throughout the day. I recommend people get one that's organic, unrefined, and preferably in a glass bottle so you're not ingesting any plastics.”
24. Regulate hormones
One aspect of controlling blood sugar is directly linked to hormone regulation—as blood sugar spikes can often have a cascading hormonal response. Well, as hormone specialist Jolene Brighten, N.M.D., told us, healthy fats are essential to balancing your hormones. And this study even showed20 that certain fats were able to help the cells respond to insulin better, so as not to throw off your body's hormones.
25. Keep food from sticking to pans
There's a reason so many brands came out with coconut oil cooking sprays recently: Like butter, it can act as a coating on your pans so foods don't stick as easily. Just dab a bit of a piece of cloth and rub around the pan before putting in your food.
26. Condition wooden furniture
Anecdotally, many who opt for natural household products swear by coconut oil's ability to make wood furniture shine.
27. Baking swaps
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.